From the Archives: A journey through AHS’ 2000-2001 football season, part 3
Published 3:59 pm Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Throughout Americus and Sumter County’s history of athletic excellence, the Times-Recorder (ATR) has been there to report on the exciting happenings around the area. Throughout the years, the ATR has built up an extensive archive of articles detailing the some of the area’s most productive periods in sports.
Recently, we have begun a journey 17 years into the past to celebrate the Americus High School football team’s 2000 season which saw the Panthers win a state championship title. In our last installment of this “From the Archives” series, we discussed the Panthers’ 26-7 win over Irwin County before moving on to the team’s 34-21 defeat of the Crisp County Cougars in the annual “Battle of the Flint”.
With a trio of “W’s” in the record books, the Panthers set their sights on Region 1-AA competition. The Panthers’ next victims would be the Terrell County Greenwaves.
By MICHAEL MURRAY
In late September of 2000, the City of Plains was gearing up for their annual peanut festival, aptly named, “Plains, Peanuts, and a President”. At the same time, residents of Americus were busily preparing for the 13th annual “Taste of Sumter” and the Times-Recorder was busily reporting on newly-constructed Sumter Youth Development Campus that would soon be opening its doors.
On a more dramatic note, officials from the FBI had just announced that a man wanted for murder in Michigan had just been apprehended in Americus in the Perlis Plaza parking lot.
Also, on the national sports stage, the Sydney Olympics were in full swing and former University of Georgia head football coach, Vince Dooley, had just been selected as the recipient of the American Football Coaches Association Amos Alonzo Stagg Award.
In local sports news, Schley County Lady Wildcats softball team had just secured themselves a spot as the number-one seed in the upcoming region tournament.
The community was deep in the throes of football fever, with two undefeated teams in Sumter County and many other teams in the surrounding area showing tons of promise in the young season.
One of those undefeated teams was, of course, the Americus High School Panthers.
As the Panthers prepared to kick off Region 1-AA competition, the ATR published the names of some of the top players in the area. Franako Smith, of AHS, was mentioned as the third most productive rusher in the area, having amassed 263 yards on 45 carries up to that point and crossed into the end zone five times to lead the pack. Only two players in the surrounding counties had racked up more yardage on the ground than Smith, Julius Banks (of Tri-County) and Quincey Hayes (of Sumter County), though neither of those players came close to Smith’s scoring record. AHS’ Joe Bruce was also mentioned in the table, having covered 185 yards on 29 totes.
AHS’ Robert Johnson was, by far, the leading passer in the area, having connected on just under half of his passing attempts (31 of 66) for 582 yards covered through the air. By this point, Johnson’s passes had also found five Panthers in the end zone.
John Harris was leading the Panthers in receptions with 11, which spanned 176 yards. Leonard Pope followed closely, having pulled in eight passes for 138 yards and two scores and Smith earned a mention in the table once more by catching six footballs for 110 yards (and a pair of touchdowns, bringing his total on the season up to that date to seven)
On Sept. 22, 2000, ATR sports editor, Matthew Brown, included an article titled, “Area football games still on… for now” in the sports section of the Times-Recorder.
In the piece, Brown discussed the potential impact that Tropical Storm Helene, which had been dominating the news for several days, might have on the weekend’s gridiron action.
The Panthers were scheduled to head to Dawson to take on newcomers to Region 1-AA, the Terrell County Greenwaves that afternoon and, at press time, coaches from every school in the area were wondering whether or not their teams would be able to compete.
As it turns out, the storm passed right through South Georgia, assuaging the teams’ fears that they could be rained out, but a special “Air Raid” half-time presentation scheduled for the Terrell tilt, which reportedly involved parachuters, had to be cancelled.
A little rain couldn’t dampen the Panthers’ spirits, however, as the AHS team would soon get the chance to show their Terrell neighbors just how tough they really were. In the Region 1-AA opener, the AHS squad saw seven different team members score touchdowns while the team’s defense held the Greenwaves to negative 25 net yards. The pummeling left the Panthers on the business end of a 48-0 decision. The Americus squad covered 174 yards on the ground in the tilt.
An article credited to “Staff Reports,” in the Sept. 24 edition of the Times-Recorder titled, “Negative returns bring positive Panther results” gave the details of AHS’ performance.
“Quarterback Robert Johnson completed 11 of 16 passes for 177 yards…,” the article stated. “John Harris caught seven passes for 127 yards, and he scored the game’s first touchdown on a four-yard run.
“Freshman Jermaine Allen caught two balls for 36 yards, 32 coming on Americus’ second touchdown. Franako Smith was the leading rusher with 66 yards on six carries with one touchdown, a six-yarder for the game’s third score. Leonard Pope also got into the scoring column on a seven-yard reception. On defense, the Panthers had three pass interceptions.
“Irwin Rutherford returned one 35 yards for yet another touchdown. Smith and Eddie Robertson had the other picks. Chad Holt had 52 yards rushing from fullback with a two-yard touchdown, and his fellow fullback Kent Margin had a one-yard score. Jonathan Frye kicked four PATs, and Pope caught a two-point pass.”
AHS head coach, Erik Soliday, seemed pleased with the team’s performance and was quoted in the article as saying, “It was good to play a lot of folks and give them a chance to do things… It was good to spread it around… It was a tremendous job by the defense. When you hold a team to low yardage, you’ve done a good job. To hold them to negative yards, you know you did something right.”
Soliday went on to name defensive linemen, Eddie Sims and Tim Angrish, who had “spent the whole game in the Terrell backfield” as key factors in the Panthers’ blowout.
As soon as the thrill of the victory died down, the Panthers immediately began looking towards the team’s upcoming Homecoming test against the Randolph-Clay Red Devils.
The Panthers had suffered a 14-6 defeat at the hands of the Red Devils in the team’s 1999 homecoming match-up against Randolph-Clay. Naturally, the team was not looking for a repeat performance.
With the turn of the millennium, however, the Panthers had been granted a fresh start and were on quite a roll with a four-game winning streak up to that point in the season.
An article, penned by Brown and titled, “Americus reminded about Red Devil win,” was included in the Sept. 28, 2000 edition of the Times-Recorder.
In the article, Soliday spoke with the ATR, saying, “[Last year], we didn’t focus all week with all the Homecoming stuff going on. We ended up getting beaten. I wanted to remind them what they need to do this week to stay focused and prepared for this game.”
The article stated that in the Panthers’ 1999 Homecoming match-up, the Panthers had amassed more yards and more first downs than the Red Devils, but a series of penalties had severely held the team back.
He went on to say that, though the Panthers got off to a 1-4 start in the 1999 season, the team went on to win the following four region games to earn a spot in the playoffs.
“Soliday said that valuable lesson combined with the team’s good leadership and work ethic turned the team in the right direction,” the article continued.
Though Soliday acknowledged that Randolph Clay’s defensive line would definitely have the size advantage over the Panthers, he felt sure that the AHS team was up to the challenge.
“Randolph is basically doing the same stuff they did last year…,” Soliday was quoted as saying. “It’s hard to drive them out of there because they’re so big, but I think we might can position them around a little bit and take advantage of being quicker… We are going to have to focus on ourselves, not make any turnovers and penalties that stall drives. We will have to put some drives together and finish them… even on defense and not make any penalties that keep drives alive. lf we can do those things, we’ll [fare] pretty well.”
As it turns out, the Panthers played much better than “pretty well”.
On Oct. 1, 2000, Brown penned another article for the ATR, titled, “NOT THIS TIME! Americus blasts Randolph Clay in second half”, which gave all of the juicy details of the Panthers’ second-half surge that allowed the team to climb out of a 6-0 hole and walk away with a 34-6 Homecoming win.
“We had flashbacks of last year in that first half,” Soliday lamented in the article. “That was just a terrible effort by us in the first half. We weren’t focused and weren’t concentrating. We had a good week of practice, and to come out and play like that in the first half was not good.”
The article then turned to a more positive note, describing how the Panthers had overcome their size disadvantage to overcome the Red Devils’ “mammoth offensive line” in the second half.
“After taking the lead immediately in the second half, the Panthers forced three turnovers that were turned into touchdowns,” the article said. “After giving up 143 yards to the Devils in the first half the Panthers allowed a net of five yards – all rushing – and three first downs in the second… Offensively, for the Panthers, it was another near-balanced effort from scrimmage with 169 team rushing yards. Quarterback Robert Johnson completed 12 of 23 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns. He was also the leading rusher with 76 yards and 15 carries with only one sack, that on what was his first carry… Tops in receiving was tailback Franako Smith with four catches for 74 yards. He also had 33 rushing yards with a touch¬down. John Harris had 55 receiving yards with a touchdown and 20 yards rushing, and one of Jermaine Allen’s two catches was for a score – 44 yards total.”
The article detailed the Panthers’ efforts to hold back the Randolph-Clay offensive onslaught in the first half, citing the efforts of Angrish, Warren Goodin, and Eddie Sims as instrumental in minimizing the damage.
“For the second half, the Panther game plan came down to three plays: quarterback draws, screen passes or deep routes,” the article continued. “Smith caught one of those screens on the first drive, broke two tackles, then got a block from Harris 29 yards to the Devil 46. Fullback Kent Margin paved Johnson’s path for a first down to the 32.
“Johnson fired away from there and hit Allen for the tying touchdown. Jonathan Frye kicked the first of four straight PATs for a 7-6 lead. Americus’ next score would come less than a minute of game time later. Leonard Pope set the defensive tone by making the ensuing kick-off, then stopping the returner at the Devil 14. Chad Holt then recovered a fumbled pitch at the 15. Two plays later from the 10, Johnson got the ball to Harris in the right near corner of the end zone, his first TD catch of 2000.”
The visitors got the ball back on an end zone interception.
“Randolph-Clay got a few breaks from there down only 14-6,” the article said, adding that the Panthers suffered a pair of penalties that had the potential to set the team back, but Pope broke up a third down pass attempt to force a punt.
“Late in the third stanza, Smith picked off a pass from Red Devil quarterback Ryan Yarbrough, and returned it 46 yards to Randolph-Clay’s one yard line, which set up a touchdown play and, on their next possession, the Panthers put together “an eight-play, 51-yard drive where Harris had a 16-yard reception on third and 14. Holt completed it with a two-yard touchdown (28-6) … Yarbrough let his second pass in a row up for grabs, and Eddie Robertson did the grabbing at the 50. His return was 45 yards, and Margin got a four¬-yard touchdown at 3:15 (34-6). Holt and Sims concluded the effort sharing a six-yard sack.”
With that win, the Panthers jumped to 5-0 at the halfway point of the regular season.
Up next for the AHS squad was yet another bitter rivalry match, but this one hit much closer to hpme.
The Panthers immediately began preparing to take on the Sumter County Rams the following week and avenge a substantial loss at the hands of the Rams in the team’s 1999 season opener.
The Rams were on quite a roll by that point in the season as well, having earned substantial victories over Crisp County, Kendrick High, Jordan High, and Albany High to claim a 4-0 record headed into the tilt with AHS.
On Oct. 3, 2000, Brown published the first of a series of columns dubbed, “Clash of the Unbeatens”, garnering excitement for the upcoming marquee match-up.
In the first article of this series, titled “Quarterback, Coach recall 30-point loss in debuts”, Brown shared portions of interviews with Soliday and AHS’ quarterback, Johnson.
By Brown’s account, the Panthers’ 1999 season curtain-raising contest didn’t give AHS fans a lot of hope for the rest of the season, as the Panthers dropped a 50-20 decision. Of course, the Panthers went on to prove the doubters wrong by securing a spot in the playoffs that season, but a spectator likely wouldn’t have believed it after the initial game, according to the report.
Both Soliday and Johnson had much to say about the previous year’s match-up, which was held right in the Panthers’ back yard at Sumter County High’s Robinson-Wilson Stadium. In the report, Soliday and Johnson each reassured AHS fans that when the two teams butted heads the following week, the Panthers would be better prepared.
“We just weren’t ready to play yet,” Soliday said, discussing the previous year’s defeat and his first competition at the helm of the Panther organization. “It’s tough to get ready to play a first ball game when it’s a big rivalry game… It was our first game in a whole new system. Offensively and defensively everything was new”
“I think it was nerves,” added Johnson, as the article continued. “It was my first time running the offense. Now that we have our offense down pat, things should be good. I learned how to read things on defense. I listened to coach Soliday and coach (Chris) Wade telling me to take things slowly.” The following day, Sumter County head coach, Lloyd Brochu, spoke with Brown in a sports page entry titled, “A trip like no other… just down the street”, discussing the local match-up from two years ago, which the Panthers had won.
In the article, Brochu said, “Two years ago, when you fumble the ball five times – four times inside the 20, you don’t deserve to win football games. We have to take care of the football when we have it and make sure we don’t beat ourselves. When you play a quality team as Americus is, you have to make them beat you.”
The Rams certainly learned that lesson and returned to the gridiron to prove that fact to the Panthers in 1999.
Having the home field advantage was definitely a perk for the Panthers, as the Rams had only defeated the Panthers once at Finklea-Robinson Field in the history of the two programs.
The Panthers had been bested by the Rams a year earlier and had no intentions of letting that happen again.
Be sure to join us next week as we continue to pore through our expansive archives and celebrate the AHS Panthers’ 2000 campaign to earn the title of state champions. In our next edition of this series, we will be exploring the Panthers’ tilt against the Sumter County Rams before the team moved on to face Turner County and Early County as the competition continued to get more and more heated.