From the Archives: A journey through AHS’ 2000-2001 football seasons, part 1

Published 3:24 pm Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Editor’s note:
Here at the Americus Times-Recorder (ATR), we are very proud of our community’s fine history of athletic excellence.
Regular readers of the Times-Recorder will likely recall the paper’s Archive series from the past two summers in which we looked back on some action-packed historical chapters in local sports history. In the past, we’ve celebrated the anniversaries of the Americus High School (AHS) Lady Panthers’ 1966 state basketball championship win, the AHS Panthers 1965, 1975, and 1976 state championship wins on the football field, and the Southland Academy Raiders’ 1986 season that saw the team bring home the state crown.
This summer, however, the Times-Recorder will be taking another trip back in time, though this journey will not take us quite as far back as we have previously gone. We will be sharing and discussing the ATR’s coverage of another exciting period in local sports history, the 2000 and 2001 seasons of AHS football, in which the Panthers won back-to-back state titles; the school’s first gridiron championship wins in 25 years.
For years, the AHS Panthers had been trying to reestablish the team’s reputation as a powerhouse in Georgia High School Association (GHSA) football but, despite some spectacular seasons between the years of 1975 and 1999, the team had been unable to carry enough momentum to propel the team to a championship win.
With the turn of the millennium, however, came a fresh start for the AHS program that would, eventually, garner the team attention from all over the state once more.

In mid-August of 2000, as heat of summer was just beginning to fade and make way for the football weather of the fall, the staff members of the Times-Recorder as well as writers from all over the world, had their work cut out for them.
It was an election year and presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, were engaged in a bitter struggle for the most coveted position in American politics.
On the home front, in Sumter County, there was an equally contentious race going on as incumbent, Randy Howard, and candidates, Nelson Brown and Robert Ingle were engaged in a tight contest to determine which of them would have the privilege of serving Sumter County as the community’s sheriff. The ATR’s coverage of the race showed clearly that there was no love lost between the three candidates as each attempted to gain the upper hand in the tight race.
The local sports scene was abuzz with the news that Americus native, Angel Myers-Martino, was training to vie for a spot on the US Olympic swim team after winning a pair of gold medals on the team in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The upcoming games were scheduled to be held in in Sydney, Australia. Though Myers-Martino failed to qualify at the Olympic trials and earn a spot on the team which would mark her third appearance at the Olympics, another competitor, 15-year-old Michael Phelps, would soon be making his mark in the history books as the youngest swimmer to participate in the Olympics as a United States swimmer in 68 years.
On August 25, the AHS Panthers took to the field for the first time that year to engage the newly-formed Schley County Wildcats and the Dooly County Bulldogs on the gridiron for a Friday night scrimmage jamboree in Vienna.
The August 27, 2000 edition of the Times-Recorder included details of the games’ action in an article titled, “Field Goal helps Americus nip Dooly in jamboree”.
“After knocking off Schley County’s first-year Wildcats 24-0, in a pair of nine-minute quarters, the Bobcats bowed 9-7 to Americus’ Panthers on the final play of a similar session,” the article read. “Americus had earlier downed Schley 21-0.

This photo, from the Sept. 6, 2000 edition of the Times-Recorder, depicts the action in the Panthers’ season opener against the Lee County Trojans in Americus. The original cutline reads: Americus High School linemen, Tim Angrish (79) and Cedric Boone (77) give chase to Lee County High quarterback, Jesse Jones, during Friday’s win at Finklea-Robinson Field. This game further established a trend towards dominant defense in the Panther program.

The piece included statements from Bobcat head coach, Bill Clark, who had good things to say about the burgeoning Schley team as well as the Panthers.
“First of all, Schley came out and made a great showing in its first-ever action as their kids played pretty well,” Clark is quoted as saying. “They have a lot to look forward to as I think they’ll put a good product on the field and win some games this season. They also had great crowd support and my hat’s off to their fans.”
“The marquee match-up was between us and Americus in what proved to be kind of a tug-of-war thing,” Clark continued. “If we’re both lucky, we just might meet each other again down the road come playoff time.”
The article went on to say that, during the shortened scrimmage match, the Bobcats had appeared to have the Panthers on the ropes when they held a 7-6 lead with only 21 seconds left to play.
According to the coverage, AHS’ quarterback, Robert Johnson, gave fans a peek at what he was capable of when he broke away from a hard rush and “sent up an aerial prayer” that was answered when a receiver hauled in the pass for a 40-yard gain that landed the visitors at Dooly’s 15 yard-line. From there, the Panthers were able to split the uprights and pull ahead by two points as the clocked wound down.
The Panthers had scored two minutes earlier in the match-up off of a five-yard touchdown rush, narrowing the gap that the Bobcats had created on the hosts’ first offensive snap when a Dooly rusher found a hole and squeezed through for a 53-yard touchdown run.
On August 29, the Times-Recorder published an article by then-sports editor, Matthew Brown, titled, “Game-winner gives Americus a boost as Lee comes to town”. The article focused on second-year AHS head Coach, Erik Soliday’s comments on the Panthers’ performance in the pre-season sneak peek.
“A coach couldn’t ask for anything more than a pressure situation in a jamboree game.,” the article stated. “Erik Soliday got that when Americus High faced Dooly County in Vienna Friday… ‘It was a good situation’, said Soliday… It gave us a chance to work on our two-minute offense and respond to a game situation. We kept our composure’”.
“Soliday said there were some good passes from [Johnson}, but the best catch of the night came from junior, John Harris,” the article continued. “It was his grab that put Americus in position to get the field goal.”
“Up front, our offensive line played well and our backs ran well,” Soliday is quoted as saying. “We threw the ball well, but we didn’t catch really good… Defensively, we played pretty solid. We got to the ball well and we didn’t tackle bad.”
This pair of early Panther successes would set the stage for many more to come as the Americus crew would go on to plow through contender after contender on their way to the state championship.
The team’s fans were obviously hoping for the best as the Panthers entered the fray under the leadership of Soliday, who had led the team to a respectable 5-6 record and a playoff appearance the previous year.
None of them, however, would likely have predicted the turnaround that the team would make after the turn of the century as the Panthers barreled their way to an undefeated season and a state championship victory.
First, however, the Panthers had to get their feet wet in their Sept. 1 season opener against the Lee County Trojans, who were returning to the gridiron with several players back from an 8-2 season the previous year that included a 35-14 defeat of the Panthers. Lee County had just been added to the new Class AAAAA in GHSA competition while the Panthers, at the time, were competing in Class AA.
The Panthers’ older team members must have remembered the team’s loss at the hands of the Trojans the previous year and set about evening the score.
And they did just that.
A September 3,2000 article in the Times-Recorder titled, “Americus Panther defense smothers Lee County”, penned by Brown, detailed the Panthers’ 26-7 domination of the Trojans in the season opener.
“With several newcomers to the varsity football scene making contributions on the defensive side, and an opposite offensive attack in the first and second, the Americus High School football team controlled Lee County High 26-7 Friday in the Panthers’ opening game of the 2000 season,” the article said.
“Senior quarterback, Robert Johnson, was 5-for-17 throwing the football for 141 yards, all of the yards and 12 of the pass attempts coming in the first half. He connected with freshman, Jermaine Allen, for 83 yards on a touchdown that broke a scoreless deadlock in the second quarter.”
The Article went on to say that, with a 13-0 lead in the second half, Soliday had altered his strategy and instructed the team to play conservatively and run the ball for most of the remainder of the Panthers’ possessions.
In an interview quoted in the article, Soliday said, “We wanted to work the clock… but we should have thrown it a bit more. We tried to keep it fairly balanced and we did a decent job of that… Johnson does a great job of putting it there; we’ve got to catch the ball. He’s a good athlete and he’s going to do things for us. We have got to find ways to make plays.”
“The Americus offensive front provided several opportunities for plays,” the article continued. “Joey Campbell and Marcus Tucker manned the strong side. Felton Johnson and Travlis Sims [handled] the weak side and William Clark got the start at center. Antwon Cross and Eddie Sims also filled in late in the game.”
Brown wrote that several first-time varsity players had made quite an impression on the defensive side in the opener, “making one key stop after another on the visiting Trojans.”
The newcomers to the team helped hold the Trojans to only 153 all-purpose yards in the tilt. AHS sophomore, Eddie Robertson and junior, Irwin Rutherford, pulled in interceptions for the Panther cause. The AHS defense also recorded three sacks and Sims had an offensive fumble recovery.
The article quoted Soliday as saying, “The defense did fantastic… We had a game plan and they followed the game plan to a T. Those young kids are scrappy. I’ll put those kind of kids on the field any day.”
Next up in the Panthers’ list of foes to be vanquished that season were the Irwin County Indians.
Before the Panthers would have the chance to clash with the Indians, however, Brown would pen another in-depth analysis of the changing structure of the Americus team. On Sept. 6, 2000, the ATR published Brown’s article, titled, “Is Americus High football changing its complexion?”
“Slowly, but surely, the face of the Panther trademark may be changing,” the article reads. “At least, it has been changing since the tail end of last season. Opposing coaches are going from worrying about stopping a perpetual passing attack to worrying if their team will be able to score at all.”
Brown went on to say that, while a talented offense can put fans in the bleachers, it takes a strong defense to win games and championships. He then referenced AHS’ shutouts of Brooks County and Albany as well as the Panthers’ road win over Thomasville the previous year to exemplify his point, stating that these wins were integral to the Panthers earning a berth in the 1999 playoffs.
He then reminded readers that the Panthers had given up 35 points to Lee County in their 1999 test, though the Trojans had seen a very different team on the field the previous weekend.
He spoke with Soliday again, quoting the Panther coach as saying, “I’ve always placed a lot of emphasis on defense… Coming in here, I knew we had to be a lot more physical defensively, and that’s one of the first issues we talked about. I think we’ve made good strides and I think we have a good, physical group this year…. We’re trying to get 11 people to the football. That way, if somebody does make a mistake, we have someone backing him up.”
Brown went on to advise readers that many fans had been shocked to see quarterback, Robert Johnson, an anchor of the Panthers’ offensive attack, in the AHS’ defensive secondary for portions of the Lee County tilt. He quoted Soliday’s affirmation that, as some of the younger players saw more time on the field, the need to put Johnson to work on the other side of the ball would likely diminish.
Brown continued singing the praises of the Panthers’ young defensive linemen, naming Chan Moses and Vincent White as players who had made clutch tackles for the Panthers in the opener.
“I think a lot of people are going to recognize our front four by the end of the year,” Soliday said in the article about the solidity of the team’s defensive line, which included Eddie Sims, Tim Angrish, Cedric Boone, and Marcus Campbell. “We feel we have a front four that’s pretty good. Most of them are back from a year ago and, hopefully, they’re that much better. They got a lot stronger over the off-season.”
“The most intimidating factor of the defense is 6-foot-7 safety, Leonard Pope,” the article concluded, with Soliday adding, “It’s nice to have a tall kid like that in the secondary. He can cover a lot of ground. He can reach up and [get to] a lot of balls… A lot of people are going to have to think twice about running up the middle with him there.”
Be sure to join us next week as we delve deeper into the ATR’s archives to explore the Panthers’ epic 2000-2001 football seasons. In the next installment of this series, we will be looking back and discussing the Panthers’ next series of match-ups, a 33-7 rout of the Irwin County Indians and a much tighter 34-21 test of the team’s skills against longtime rivals, the Crisp County Cougars in the ever-exciting “Battle of the Flint”.