From the Archives: A journey through AHS’ 2000-2001 football season, part 4
Published 2:30 pm Wednesday, June 28, 2017
For the past three years, the Americus Times-Recorder has spent the summer months celebrating exciting periods in Americus and Sumter County’s history of athletic excellence. Recently, we began our latest run of articles in the “From the Archives” series, detailing the 2000 Americus High School (AHS) Panthers’ meteoric rise to the top of Class AA football in Georgia, in which the Panthers went undefeated throughout the season to earn a state championship victory.
In our latest installment, we discussed the Panthers’ 48-0 thrashing of Terrell County and the team’s Homecoming victory over Randolph-Clay before sharing some of the Times-Recorder’s previews of one of the Panthers’ most bitter rivalry tilts that they would play during the season. The Panthers were gearing up to take on the neighboring Sumter County Rams.
The Rams had gone undefeated until that point in the season, as had the Panthers.
As the two unbeaten teams prepared for their clash, the Times-Recorder was right there with them every step of the way.
By MICHAEL MURRAY
In the beginning of October 2000, the Summer Olympics were just closing and the American team was preparing to leave Sydney with more gold medals (37) and, for that matter, more total medals (93) than any other participating country.
In local news, the community was preparing for the annual Andersonville Historic Fair, which was expected to draw hundreds of people to the small Sumter County town. A little further up Highway 49, the Times-Recorder was reporting on the resignation announcement of Montezuma Police Chief, Lewis Cazenave.
In local sports news, the Times-Recorder was reporting that the Schley County Lady Wildcats softball team had just won the Region title with a defeat of Wilcox County, and would soon be headed to the Class A state sectional tournament.
As the temperatures steadily dropped to the point that many consider, “football weather”, people’s attention turned to the gridiron.
On October 6, 2000, the Times-Recorder published the third installment of its series titled, “The Clash of the Unbeatens”. This particular piece, penned by ATR sports editor, Matthew Brown, was subtitled, “Americus vs. Sumter County: The X’s and O’s”.
“The X’s and O’s of Americus High vs. Sumter County High on the football field this Friday have nothing to do with hugs and kisses,” the article began. “There will be handshakes and pats on the back at 8:00 in the first quarter and at 0:00 of the fourth, but in between will be the most brutal of chess matches.”
“Here are the easy numbers to remember: four and five,” Brown continued. “Americus is number four in the state with a 5-0 record. Sumter County is number five in the state with a 4-0 record. First place in Region 1-AA is on the line [as well as] bragging rights from one side of the county to the other.”
The article went on to say that the Panthers might have a slight advantage in the tilt as SCHS running back, Nate Sanford, had been sidelined two weeks prior with a broken leg. Sanford had been the leading rusher for the Rams in the previous season, the article explained. Fortunately, for the Sumter County crew, senior back, Quincy Hayes, had been more than happy to help carry the torch for the Rams and had stepped up his yardage production, breaking the 400-yard mark for the season the week prior.
“They have a good rushing attack,” AHS head football coach, Erik Soliday, is quoted as saying in the article. “It’s a bad thing that the kid got injured, but they have enough athletes to replace him. With all of the talent that they have, they don’t have any trouble replacing someone… Not only can Hayes and senior quarterback, Brian Davis, move the football on the ground, but Davis will look to get six foot six sophomore, Chauncey Hall, the football through the air.”
“Double team Hall, and a number of other Rams, including Chauncy Laster, can get open… You have to cover them all because they have a lot of skilled athletes at receiver,” Soliday continued. “You can’t leave one uncovered or they’ll burn you. They probably have as many skilled athletes as anyone in the state. You can’t pick one thing and decide you’re going to stop it… You have to be prepared for all of it.”
The article went on to say that, despite the fact that the Rams’ defense had lost some key players to graduation the previous year, several students had emerged to make a huge impact on the team’s performance in the young 2000 season, including John Gamble and Patrick Jones.
“They’re very good up front,” said Soliday. “They’re very good in the secondary. There’s no real weak spot to their defense. It’s pretty solid all the way around. They seem to have pretty good depth over there. Nobody’s hurt them a whole lot with different things… You have to really play mistake-free in this type of game. A turnover can be very costly and penalties can be very costly. You have to execute the game plan … anything negative can cost you.”
The article then turned its attention to SCHS head coach, Lloyd Brochu, who told the Times-Recorder, “One year ago, the Sumter Rams held a first-time starter, Americus junior, Robert Johnson, to nine passing yards. Since then, Johnson has won 10 of 15 starts and his numbers have improved dramatically.
“He’s a good athlete, and I think they’re a better football team now than they were back then,” Brochu elaborated in the article. “He’s really matured as a quarterback on the field. He’ll be a handful for us. What’s different from years gone by is they are letting their quarterback run the ball. It puts an extra dimension on what the defense has to be conscious of.
“The Panthers sure aren’t selfish when it comes to offense. Against Terrell County, seven different players had a touchdown, and against Randolph-Clay the number was five,” Brown added.
“They do a good job of moving the ball around, and I think the credit goes to Johnson,” Brochu continnued. “He reads the defenses and takes them out of audibles into plays that are good for them. We have to stay balanced as a defense and remember what our assignments are.”
“On the Americus defense, the first thing that stands out is the size on the line,” Brown continued. “That includes Tim Angrish, Eddie Sims, Marcus Campbell and an up-and-coming sophomore, Warren Gooden. Brochu is already conceding a size advantage to the Panthers, and that includes the Americus offensive line.
“The key to any football game is that the team that controls the line of scrimmage is going to win,” said Brochu. “It’s going to be a real challenge to our offensive line to match up against their defensive line. That ought to be the telling tale of the contest.”
“Looking at the Americus defense overall, the unit has had two games this season holding teams to negative yards of offense,” the article stated. “One of those was against a ranked Irwin County offense.”
“You have to be able to throw the ball,” said Brochu. “If you can throw and mix up your run, you can have success moving the ball. The key to their whole defense is the front four. You have to control those guys. You have to avoid the big play…”
In a section called “The Numbers Game”, published in the same edition of the Times-Recorder, Brown gave readers some details about some of the top athletes from the surrounding area. In the rushing yards category, Quincy Hayes occupied the top spot, having cleared 403 yards on 66 totes in the Rams’ four games up until that point. AHS’ Franako Smith followed close behind, equaling Hayes’ average of 6.1 yards per carry. Smith had covered 364 yards on the ground with 60 carries over five games and had broken into the end zone seven times (running) up to that point in the season.
Though Smith trailed slightly in ground yardage behind Hayes, he made up for it by tacking on 187 more yards through the air on nine receptions. AHS’ John Harris was at the top of the receivers’ list, having collected 358 yards on 23 catches in the Panthers’ five games to date.
In the same listing, Daniel Warren, of Southland, earned mention as the second most productive receiver in the area at that point after covering 327 yards on 22 receptions.
In the quarterback’s division, Johnson stood head and shoulders above the rest, having completed 53 of 105 passing attempts for 958 yards and nine touchdowns.
George Jackson, of Tri-County, took second-place honors in the local quarterback rankings with 560 yards covered on 29 completions.
On the day of the big game, it seemed that everyone in Sumter County was whipped into a frenzy. The Times-Recorder’s Friday, Oct. 6, 2000 edition included articles aimed at each team’s fan base, including one on how the AHS cheerleaders were preparing for the showdown and another focusing on SCHS’ band. For good measure, Brown included a position-by-position analysis of the upcoming battle titled, “Americus v. Sumter: The Tale of the Tape”, which outlined each way in which one team might gain a slight edge over the other.
Finally, at 7:30 that evening, after fans clad in black and gold took their places in the stands opposite a sea of blue and white, it was finally time to settle the matter.
The Times-Recorder’s Sunday edition sports section, published on October 8, 2000, included the answers to the questions that many fans had on the previous Friday.
For that edition, Brown had penned an article titled, “Panthers wear out Rams 28-14”.
“Erik Soliday and Lloyd Brochu had to endure a lot of turnovers in the first half, but it was Soliday’s Americus Panthers who got the last big take¬away play to earn a 28-14 win Friday over the Sumter Rams at Finklea-Robinson Field,” the article stated. “Franako Smith’s interception return for a touchdown with 1:56 until halftime broke a 14-14 tie and proved to be the game-winner. Americus had just tied the game a minute earlier on what was a rare first half completion for quarterback, Robert Johnson, a 38-yard scoring strike to John Harris.”
“We did just enough stupid things to keep them in the ball game,” Soliday is quoted as saying in the article. “Their kids played hard, and I’ll give them credit for that.”
“We had a young kid miss a blocking assignment,” Brochu added. “Give the Americus kid credit. He got his hands up and knocked the ball up in the air. That was a crucial point in the game. It gave them momentum going into the half. 14-14, it might be a little different, but we couldn’t get it going after that.”
“In the second half, it was the Americus size mixed in with a little quickness that took Sumter County completely out of its rhythm,” Brown continued. “The Panther defense turned in eight negative-yard plays in the second half. In the end, the Rams were held to 167 yards of offense to 395 for Americus.”
“’I think our lines dominated on offense and defense,’ said Soliday. ‘That won the ball game’”
“’The battle in the trenches… they have some big football players, and their defensive front dominated our offensive front,’ said Brochu. “That’s been our concern all year. We played better, but you have to get even better if you want to beat the quality football teams.’”
From there, Brown enthusiastically reminded local fans that, with the win, the Panthers remained unbeaten at 6-0, while the Rams dropped to a very respectable 4-1 on the 2000 season. He then began to detail the game’s action.
“Johnson wound up completing seven of 20 passes in the game for 167 yards,” Brown wrote. “The Panther running game grounded out 228 yards with Smith the big gainer at 126 yards on 14 carries and two more touchdowns. Sumter County quarterback, Brian Davis, had 13 completions for 126 yards and one touchdown. “The Ram running game would only net 41 yards.
“Mistakes were prevalent all through the first half, and Americus had its fair share despite running 16 plays and picking up six first downs before the Rams lined up at scrimmage for the first time. On the first Panther drive, Smith had 60 yards on three carries, his last putting his team on the Sumter two.
“Two of Smith’s big gains were out of the shotgun formation, but Johnson went under center from the two. His short pass was picked off by 6-foot-6 sophomore safety, Chauncey Hall, who turned it into a touchdown return. Alan Chadwick kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead at the 9:30 mark.
“The Panthers would manufacture a 10-play drive, this time going to Joe Bruce at tailback eight times. One of those was a 32-yard gain for first-and-goal at the Sumter 10. Bruce finished the night with 87 rushing yards. “Americus again found a third-down at the two, but Chris Piortt and Terrance Lassister wrapped up Bruce there… On fourth down, James Brochu blew through the line to stop Bruce for a loss… The bad news on that was that Sumter began its first series at its 5. On the second play, Bruce jarred the football loose and Chad Holt recovered at the three. Americus would not be denied a third time inside the 5, and Smith scored at 4:16.
Jonathan Frye tied the game with his kick.”
“Panther linebacker Felton Johnson got the football back stopping a fourth-down call at the Americus 27,” the article proceeded. “Sumter’s defense forced a punt that only went 12 yards and stayed in Panther ground… Three plays later, despite a leveling hit by Marcus Campbell, Davis completed a 35-yard scoring pass to Chauncey Laster on the first play of the second quarter. Chadwick was good on the kick for a 14-7 lead.
“Defenses ruled most of the second quarter. Joseph Smith, J. Brochu, Patrick Jones and John Gamble for Sumter and Warren Gooden, Bruce and Kent Margin for Americus.
“The decisive moments of the game began when Bruce, from his own 31, shed some early tackles for a 27-yard gain on another shotgun hand-off. Two plays later, he fumbled the ball, which J. Brochu fell on at the Ram 41. Leonard Pope would force a fumble on the first Ram snap with the Panthers reclaiming at the 38.
“Johnson, after eight incompletions and the interception, got a pass into Harris’ hands in the end zone with 2:55 remaining in the half. Frye tied the score at 14-14.
“The key kick would come from Pope on the kick-off. His boot bounced dead in play inside the five and Quincy Hayes had to make a late-starting return that got only to the 13.
“Two plays later, a Davis pass was batted in the air and Smith claimed the ball for a near 20-yard touchdown return. Sumter blocked the PAT try, but the Panthers were up for good, 20- 14, at 1:56.”
Brown continued to describe the game’s action in the second half, writing that Campbell took the lead in a defensive rush to shut down the Rams before he stepped on the other side of the ball to provide blocking for Smith on a 16-yard jaunt.
Gamble looked to stifle AHS’ progress with a sack, but Smith made up for lost ground with another 13-yard run.
“The key point of the second half came on a fourth and four call by Soliday from the 35,” the article picked up. “Harris caught the pass, but it took a measurement to rule Americus had earned a fresh set of downs,” said the article.
Soon, Smith had earned his third touchdown of the game, bypassing a barrage of blitzes to break the plane. He then had the chance to run in the two-point conversion, giving the Panthers the 28-14 edge that would eventually win the AHS crew the game.
Due, in part, to the efforts of Sumter’s Wayne Harvey and Gamble, the Rams were able to keep the Panthers from tossing any more points on the board, though Angrish and Campbell didn’t make it easy for them, according to the report.
With that win, the Panthers had secured their place in the record books as the toughest football team in the Americus/Sumter County area, and were well on their way to earning a reputation as the toughest Class AA football team in the state of Georgia.
Asked how he and the team felt about their growing reputation as the “team to beat” in Class AA competition, Soliday told the Times-Recorder “We still have four more teams in the region who will have something to say about that… We’re going to take them one step at a time.”
As the excitement died down from the Panthers’ victory over the Rams, the AHS crew looked forward to a hard-earned break, taking a bye week the following Friday to rest and rejuvenate themselves.
The break would come just in time for the Panthers, as they would soon be gearing up to battle a determined Turner County squad.
Be sure to join us next week as we continue to pore through our extensive archives and explore the AHS Panthers’ epic 2000 gridiron season.