From the Archives: A journey through AHS’ 2000-2001 football seasons, part 2
Published 4:14 pm Wednesday, June 14, 2017
For over 100 years, the Americus Times-Recorder (ATR) has been helping to keep local readers abreast of what’s happening in the sporting world in Sumter County and the surrounding areas.
Modern readers will likely recall the Times-Recorder’s past celebrations of some of the most exciting periods of athletic excellence in the area in a series off columns titled, “From the Archives”. Recently, the ATR began taking another trip down memory lane, continuing the tradition of this series though, this time around, the trip back in time has been much shorter than it has in the past.
In last week’s installment of the “From the Archives” series, we began digging through our vast collection of past ATR editions to highlight the 2000 Americus High School Panthers, who mercilessly plowed their way through competitor after competitor on their way to an undefeated season and a state championship victory.
In the first installment of this year’s series, the ATR discussed the Panthers’ 2000 curtain-raiser, in which the Americus crew hosted the Lee County Trojans and handed the visitors a 26-7 defeat to set the tone for what would soon be apparent to local fans as a spectacular season.
Following this initial win over the Trojans, the Panthers began preparations to take on the Irwin County Indians in their second tilt of the fall.
By MICHAEL MURRAY
Mid-September of the year 2000 was a busy time in Americus, as hundreds of charitably-minded volunteers began to descend on the small town to participate in a “Blitz Build”, a collaboration between Habitat for Humanity and the Jimmy Carter Work Project, which sought to build 35 houses in Sumter County for underprivileged families.
At the same time, in Americus, local actors and musicians were diligently practicing to bring to life the Sumter Players’ production of The Cotton Patch Gospel, based on a novel by Clarence Jordan, one of the founders of Koinonia Farms.
The town’s political landscape was seemingly tumultuous at the time, as local candidates for the position of Sumter County sheriff, Randy Howard, Nelson Brown, and Bob Ingle were engaged in a struggle to earn the right to represent the people of Sumter county.
On the national stage, economists in the United States were just taking in the announcement of a merger between two of the most prestigious financial institutions in the country; JP Morgan and Company and the Chase Manhattan Bank; a merger that reportedly combined $35.2 billion worth of assets. At the same time, the Times-Recorder was busily reporting then-president, Bill Clinton’s efforts to convince the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to increase oil production and drive down gas prices.
In the national sports world, the Times-Recorder was abuzz with news about Americus native (and AHS alum), Dan Reeves’ return to Mile High Stadium in Denver; this time around as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Reeves had previously served as head coach of the Denver Broncos from 1981-1992 and the Falcons had suffered a Super Bowl loss to the Broncos in 1999.
Local sports fans were in the throes of football fever, with the young season beginning to gain steam and several area teams showing tons of promise.
Fresh off of a defeat of the Crisp County Cougars, the Sumter County Comprehensive High School Rams were gearing up to take on Kendrick High School, of Columbus in a tilt that they would go on to win 12-6. The Southland Academy Raiders were looking to make up lost ground in a test of their skills against the Brookwood Warriors after dropping their record to 1-1 the previous week with a defeat at the hands of Windsor Academy.
Meanwhile, the Tri County High School Eagles were featured in a Times-Recorder article, detailing quarterback, George Jackson’s seven for seven passing performance that led the team to a 33-0 shutout of the Abbeville High School Yellowjackets, of Alabama.
On Sept. 7, 2000, AHS fans were still reeling from the thrill of the Panthers’ season-opening victory over the Lee CountyTrojans when ATR sports editor, Matthew Brown, published a preview of the week’s upcoming action, a tilt against the Irwin County Indians titled, “Americus-Irwin County a top-10 clash in AA”.
“The game was the last one placed on the Americus High football schedule, and it may turn out to be a barometer of which will be a team to watch out for late in Class AA,” the article read. “…Americus maintained its No. 5 state ranking in Class AA with the 1-0 record while Irwin stands at No. 10. The Indians are one of numerous programs which have moved up to the AA classification from Class A, and Irwin went 9-1 last year, losing to eventual champion Charlton County in the state second round…”
In the piece, Brown quoted then-Panther head coach, Erik Soliday as saying, “They’re going to be a good football team. They have a tremendous running back … one of the best backs in the state. They have a big 6-foot-5 receiver they like to throw the ball to. They’ve been real competitive the last few years, so they know what it’s about.” The article went on to say that, because the match-up would be the Indians’ season opener under a newly-hired head coach, there was no way of knowing what to expect from the visiting Ocilla team.
Soliday continued the interview, remarking that, in order to come out on top, the Panthers would have to be “mistake-free”, referencing the team’s loss of 70 yards on 10 flags the previous week.
The following evening, Soliday and the Panthers’ fans would have their questions answered when the AHS squad hit the field to deal a 33-7 blow to the visiting Indians.
ATR sports correspondent, Wayne Sprouse, wrote an in-depth overview of the game’s action in a Sept. 10, 2000 article titled, “Panthers claw up Irwin Indians”.
“Americus High School scored on the on the ground, in the air, and by way of a fumble recovery en route to clawing up the Irwin County High Indians 33-7 Friday at Finklea-Robinson Field,” Sprouse began in the piece before going on to say, “Franako Smith led the Americus scoring with two touchdowns, one on the ground and one from the air. Leonard Pope, Chad Holt, and even defensive lineman, Tim Angrish, added touchdowns to raise the team record to 2-0 on the season… Senior quarterback, Robert Johnson, completed 65 percent of his passes in the first half, 13 completions in 20 attempts. Two of the completions went for touchdowns to Pope and Smith. Johnson wound up 14-for-22 for the night for 204 yards. The Panther receiving corps had three players with more than 50 yards each. Smith caught three for 72 yards, John Harris had six for 66 yards, and Pope two for 54 yards… Americus’ Smith also led the ground game with 84 yards rushing on 16 carries. He wound up with 156 total yards on the night. Joe Bruce added 63 yards on eight totes.”
Sprouse went on to detail what began as a tight race, with the Panthers eventually scoring on their second possession on an eight-yard Holt rush before AHS place kicker, Jonathan Frye, split the uprights to give the hosts a 7-0 edge.
“This lead was short-lived, 17 seconds of game time,” the article continued. “…as [Irwin running back Verondre] Barnes electrified the crowd with a pretty 96-yard kick-off return, scoring untouched. Maurice Williams made his kick to tie the score 7-7.”
From that point on, the Panthers stole the show. Sprouse wrote that AHS’ solid defensive wall ended up holding the Indians to only two net rushing yards in the first half and a net of only five passing yards for the entire game.
The Panthers’ offense kept up the momentum as well, as the Panthers would go on to score on long Johnson passes to Leonard Pope and Smith, who each recorded their touchdowns in the first half, accompanied by another successful PAT by Frye.
A rainy second half couldn’t dampen the Panthers’ spirits either, as the team would go on to score again after Pope set up Smith for a touchdown run with a 34-yard reception. In the final minutes of the game, Angrish recovered a fumble in the end zone to put the Panthers’ final six points on the board.
Just like that, the Panthers jumped to 2-0 and completed one-fifth of their regular-season schedule.
With a pair of wins under their belts, the AHS crew immediately set to work preparing for one of the season’s most heated rivalry matches, the Battle of the Flint, against the Crisp County Cougars.
On Sept. 14, 2000, Harvey Simpson, sports editor of the Cordele Dispatch, shared a preview of the upcoming game which was published in the Times-Recorder titled, “Soliday expects fun game between AHS and Crisp”.
“That Americus High has averaged a tad under 30 points per game to date isn’t a shock to head coach Erik Soliday,” the article began. “That the team’s defensive unit has given up just one touchdown in each of its two games to date is a surprise to the Panthers’ boss who’ll take his team to Cordele Friday to battle Crisp’s Cougars.”
The piece included quotes from Soliday, saying that he was pleasantly surprised by how the Panthers’ relatively young defensive linemen have handled themselves on the gridiron through the teams initial two games, adding that he has “four players deserving of all-region and possibly all-state selection at the end of the season. They are quarterback Robert Johnson (6-3, 190-sr.), linemen Marcus Campbell (6-4, 270-sr.) and Joey Tucker (6-3, 290-sr.) and defensive end Tim Angrish (6-3, 250-sr.).”
The conversation then turned to the next day’s match-up.
Soliday conceded that the Panthers would likely not face another foe with as much size and speed as the Cougars through the season and that the Crisp team’s 0-2 record did not accurately reflect what the players were capable of.
He went on to voice his admiration for Crisp’s dual-threat at the quarterback position, composed of Jeffrey Felton (who sported an impressive running game) and Wesley Hill (who was a talented passer).
“That’s a pretty good 1-2 punch to have at that position and they’ve got some kids who can catch the ball when they put it in the air.,” Soliday said. “All of their kids come and play hard so we know they’re going to be at their best trying to get back on track… We really need to contain them and keep them from having big plays or otherwise they could get the thing over with in a hurry… We’re going over there expecting an excellent game – one that should be fun for the fans to watch.”
The following day, the Panthers donned their uniforms and headed east to Cordele, ready for battle, and it was a fierce one for the local fans to enjoy.
Despite an admirable performance from the hosts, the Panthers prevailed with a 34-21 win. To the Cougars’ credit, the Class AAAA Cordele team scored more points in that match-up than the Panthers’ previous two opponents combined (14), and their 21 points in the match would be the most that the Panthers’ determined defense would give up to a single opponent all year.
Simpson penned another article, which was published in the Sept. 17, 2000 edition of the Times-Recorder, detailing the game’s action.
The article said that the Panthers’ defense was, again, a key factor in the victory, as they jumped on a trio of fumbles in the match and pulled down one interception.
“The host Cougars did draw the first scoring blood in the game,” the article read. “…moving 34 yards in 10 plays after a shanked 11-yard punt by the Panthers…” The Cougars had successfully converted two fourth downs into firsts in the drive, before Hill wedged in for the score from the one, leaving the Panthers down by a touchdown and giving the visitors a glimpse of the Cougars’ determination.
The Panthers evened the score later in the first half after recovering a fumble and pushing the ball to the Cougars’ one, where Smith would cross the plane. After a kick by Frye, the score stood at 7-7, where it would stay through the remainder of the first half, though the Panthers would threaten twice more, moving the ball to within the Cougars’ 30 both times.
According to the article, the Panthers returned from the half-time break ready to rumble and took off on a 68-yard drive on their first possession of the second half. Smith hit the scoreboard again, taking a screen pass from Johnson and breaking down the right side for a touchdown.
After kicking off, the Panthers struck again, pushing the Cougars back to their own four yard-line before Campbell threw himself on an end-zone fumble to score and leave the Cougars behind 21-7.
The Cougars kept hopes of a comeback alive on their return drive with a touchdown and the Panthers responded in kind when the visitors capped off a 78-yard trek with a toss to Pope, waiting in the end zone.
The Crisp squad then added another touchdown to keep the pressure on the Americus team, but the Panthers stubbornly refused to let the Cougars get any closer to a comeback following that drive.
AHS added an insurance touchdown when Smith burst past Crisp’s right tackle for a 39-yard TD run.
“On the night, Smith ran 18 times for 104 of the 174 rushing yards managed by the visitors,” the article concluded. “Johnson completed 12 of 25 passes for 229 yards. With five grabs for 79 yards, Pope was his favorite target… Tackle Eddie Sims was the ringleader of the Panther defense that limited the Cougars to 47 yards on the ground and 97 through the air.”
With that win, the Panthers had completed their non-conference schedule, as a buzz began to sound across the state with fans wondering if that might be the year that the Panthers would re-establish the team’s reputation as a powerhouse in Georgia high school football. Luckily, for AHS football fans, the Panthers’ streak of domination was only beginning and the best was yet to come.
Be sure to join us next week as we continue to delve into the ATR’s archives and celebrate the Panthers’ 2000 season. In our next installment, the Times-Recorder will be discussing the beginning of AHS’ Class AA Region schedule, which kicked off with matches against Terrell County, Randolph-Clay, and Sumter County High Schools.
The Panthers won all three games.