From the Archives: A journey through AHS’ 2000-2001 football season, part 5
Published 11:40 am Monday, July 10, 2017
Regular readers of the Americus Times-Recorder (ATR) will likely recall that the newspaper recently embarked on a journey down “memory lane”, celebrating one of the area’s most recent exciting periods of sporting excellence. This summer, in our “From the Archives” series, we have been exploring the Americus High School (AHS) Panthers’ 2000-2001 football season, in which the AHS crew blew a slew of challengers out of the water on their way to a state championship victory.
In our latest installment of the series, we discussed one of the Panthers’ most longstanding rivalry match-ups up to that point in the year against the Sumter County Rams.
The build-up for the friendly, but fiercely competitive rivalry match had swept the town and, after the dust settled, the Panthers emerged victorious over the previously-unbeaten Rams.
The following week, the Panthers took a hard-earned break before they began preparations to defend their 6-0 record against the Turner County Rebels.
By MICHAEL MURRAY
In mid-October 2000, many sports fans in Georgia were busily wondering if the Atlanta Hawks might be able to turn their luck around and put together a winning season under the guidance of rookie coach, Lon Kruger.
In local news, the Times-Recorder was steadily keeping area residents updated on the hunt for an escaped inmate after three prisoners escaped from the Sumter County jail. Two of the fugitives were located quickly, but the third eluded a concerted effort from local law enforcement for several days before he was recaptured.
Also in local headlines, Sheriff Randy Howard had recently secured the democratic nomination for the upcoming sheriff’s election, in which he would face Bob Ingle. At the same time, hundreds of members of the community were applying pressure to the local County Commission to find a way to cover the county’s expenses without raising property taxes.
In the ATR’s sports section, sports editor, Matthew Brown, was steadily keeping fans in the area up to date on the progress of the Macon County softball team, which had secured a spot in the Elite-Eight round of the state tournament and the Staley Middle School football team, which had earned a 6-0 record on the season and didn’t show any signs of slowing down.
Dominating the sports page headlines during that period, however, was the AHS football team, which was featured in nearly every edition as they continued to roll over their Class AA opponents.
On October 12, the ATR published an article about another group of talented AHS students, titled, “Panther band takes sweepstakes trophy”.
The piece discussed AHS’ champions in the stands, who had recently traveled to Hawkinsville to compete against bands from all over Georgia for the coveted Sweepstakes Trophy. The AHS band blew the competition away, earning the highest score possible on their way to the victory.
This excitement would carry over to the football stadium the following Friday, when the Panthers were scheduled to travel to Ashburn to battle the as-yet undefeated Turner County Rebels for the right to call themselves the top team in Region 1-AA.
Before the action got going, however, Brown decided to pay homage to one member of the Panther team, in particular.
In an Oct. 18 article titled, “’Unsung’ MVP leads by example”, Brown wrote, “Several players on the Americus High School football team have piled up a high number of touchdowns in 2000. Several players have racked up a load of yards. There are also several players who don’t have any of those kind of numbers, and one who has stood out as perhaps a true most valuable player… Big senior Marcus Campbell, at 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, has been more than happy to lend a helping hand to those in the more “glamorous” positions. Against Randolph-Clay, he threw a thundering pancake block to free tailback, Franako Smith. Against Sumter County, his wide frame kept a runner trapped up to allow Robert Johnson to make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.”
He then quoted Panther head coach, Erik Soliday, as saying, “Marcus has had a good year so far on both sides of the football… Offensively, he’s doing a tremendous job blocking. He knows all the assignments. He makes sure everybody’s going to the right places. Defensively, he does his Job the best he can. You can count on him to make plays and always be in the right place.”
The article also quoted Campbell as saying, “The offensive and defensive lines are the main parts of the team even though we don’t get as much recognition as other people. Recognition isn’t enough if you don’t win.”
When asked which side of the ball he prefers to be on, Campbell told the Times-Recorder, “Defense, mostly … You get to hit the other quarterback. I like protecting [AHS quarterback, Robert Johnson].”
The article concluded, reminding local sports fans to look for Campbell on the hardwood later in the year, as he had taken a spot on the Panther basketball team the previous season.
The following day, Brown published a preview of the upcoming action, titled, “Another battle of the unbeaten”. In the piece, Brown wrote, “For the second week in a row, No. 3-ranked Americus High School is faced with a battle of the undefeateds in Region 1-AA. The 6-0 Panthers playing at Turner County may not carry the atmosphere of when Americus played Sumter County Oct. 6, but the game is every bit – if not more – important to Soliday and his players.”
Brown added that Soliday was acutely familiar with the Turner County program, as he had previously coached in that system for eight years.
He went on to explain that the AHS and Turner teams were tied for first place in Region 1-AA at 3-0 and the winners of the upcoming game would get to claim that honor all to themselves.
He also discussed the fact that, included on the Rebels’ roster, was Class AA’s leading rusher, Jason Walker. The article went on to say that Walker could, potentially, pose a very real threat to the Panthers in the upcoming match-up. Averaging over 150 yards per game, the Turner County standout had already broken the 1,100-yard mark on the 2000 season, and would surely look to be adding more to his tally the following Friday evening.
“With that running game, they’re patient and grind it out, get what they can get and eventually break a long one,” Soliday said in the article. “It’s going to be a good test for us. We haven’t seen a back as big as this kid is. He’s not super-fast, but he’s fast enough to hurt you. It’s going to be a test to see if we can hold them in check.”
“Great backs and big lines are nothing new to Americus, especially in the last two games,” the article continued. “The Panthers have only given up 46 rushing yards since halftime of the Randolph-Clay game on Sept. 29. The primary reason being the dominant play of the Americus defensive line, led by seniors Marcus Campbell, Eddie Sims and Tim Angrish.”
At the time, the Turner squad was also notably the top team in Region 1-AA for fewest points allowed, but Soliday told the Times-Recorder that that didn’t bother him or the Panthers’ team members very much.
“We haven’t seen them against anybody who throws the ball yet,” said Soliday. “We can’t really get a good picture of their secondary. We’re hoping maybe that will be to our advantage.”
The Rebels would definitely get the chance to show whether or not they could hold off a passing attack, as Americus’ defensive line would be protecting Johnson, who had already broken the 1,100-yard marker through the air by that point in the season.
Soliday expressed his excitement as the article concluded, saying, “This, right now, is definitely a bigger game for us because this will put somebody in sole possession of first place… It should be a tremendous football game.”
The next day, when the teams finally hit the gridiron, the Panthers did not disappoint their fans who had made the trek to Ashburn to watch the game. The AHS squad came out of the gate fighting to deal the Rebels a 40-15 defeat.
Brown detailed the game’s action in an Oct. 22 article, titled, “Johnson, Harris break rebellion”.
“For the second time in as many games, the Americus High School football team made a “battle of the
unbeatens” its own personal showcase Friday,” Brown wrote. “Behind the arm of senior quarterback Robert Johnson and hands of junior receiver John Harris, the Panthers dismantled the previously undefeated Turner County High Rebels…”
He added that the 7-0 Panthers had gotten 345 passing yards from Johnson on 17 completions, four of which went for touchdowns.
“He did a pretty good job tonight,” said Soliday in the article. “We probably had 150 yards called back on penalties. He hit some things, and we dropped some sure enough good throws that were really costly. If we don’t tighten up on that, it’s going to cost us down the road.”
Brown continued, saying that these mistakes didn’t really matter much in the end, as the Rebels would only net 42 yards from the line of scrimmage on the night while the Panthers would total just under 500 all-purpose yards.
Johnson and Harris were noted in the article after the quarterback connected with the wideout three times for touchdowns in the second half of the match-up. In total, Harris pulled down 11 passes for 216 yards for the Panther cause.
The article also praised AHS running back, Joe Bruce, who had led the team’s ground attack with 113 yards on 14 totes. The game’s top defenders were Sims and Warren Goodin, who “set the tone on the defensive line and stalled Turner’s offense.”
The Panthers got the jump on the Rebels from the first snap, which resulted in Johnson handing off to Jermaine Allen, who took off for a 69-yard touchdown run. The Panthers never slowed down from there, eventually putting another “W” in the record books.
After earning the substantial win and securing their spot at the top of the Region 1-AA pile, Soliday was determined to help the team remain grounded, concluding the interview by telling the Times-Recorder, “We still have a couple of teams left… Early County’s still in the thick of things. Until that last ball game, we aren’t going to take nothing for granted.”
With that statement, Soliday had signaled that the team would be wasting no time before beginning their preparations for their next road match-up against Early County, scheduled for the following Friday.
Brown discussed the Panthers’ potential strategy in an Oct. 2000 piece named, “Can Early halt Panther run?”
“Seventeen pass completions and almost 500 yards of offense and all the Americus coach could think afterwards were the drops and the penalty yards,” the article began. “That’s the way you stay focused when you are 7-0 and ranked No. 3 in Class AA.”
On the upcoming test of the Panthers’ grit, the article quoted Soliday as saying that the Early County Bobcats were an “’up-and-down’ team, in that you never know which team will show up… One week, they look good, and another they make some mistakes like a lot of the time a young team does… You have to be prepared. They have shown signs of being a good football team. They beat Seminole County by 41 points…”
The article went on to remind readers that Early County wasn’t short on winning tradition or producing talent, citing the Bobcats’ Class AA championship run two years prior, with a team which had produced a linebacker that was playing for the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets in the 2000 season. Brown continued, saying that the Bobcats had netted all of their yardage against Sumter County two weeks earlier due, in part, to the efforts of quarterback, Collier Watson, who had broken containment on a pair of key plays in the match-up.
“The only other weapon Early showed against the Rams was back Daveon George,” the article continued. “However, no matter who it has been, even South Georgia’s leading rusher -Turner’s Jason Walker – no one has run the football against the Panther defense….”
Brown then brought it back to the issues of penalties and dropped passes, saying, “those were the only things that kept the Americus offense in check at Turner County… before quoting Soliday as saying, “We have the potential to score… We feel like we have a pretty good line and good running game. We have stayed fairly balanced through the year. We feel like we have something to go to whenever we need it. I hope we can stay balanced and take advantage of what people give us.”
The next day, the Panthers traveled to Blakely to put their undefeated record on the line once more and any questions that the AHS fans might have had were answered.
Like clockwork, Brown published a rundown of the action in the Oct. 29 edition of the Times-Recorder in an article titled, “Panthers finish off Early County. This article was credited to “Staff Reports”.”
“Early is the best way to describe the way in which the Americus High School football team put away the Early County High Bobcats on the road Friday,” the article began. “With 274 passing yards in the first half from quarterback Robert Johnson, the No. 3 Panthers demolished Early County 40-0 for 8-0 overall and 5-0 in Region l-AA…
“With a 33-0 halftime lead, head coach Erik Soliday said his team tried its best to sit on the football, not run up the score and get a head start back home without any serious injuries. The game was only 6-0 after the first quarter, but Johnson threw three touchdown passes in a 27-point second period.”
The article then shared some of the game’s impressive statistics. “Americus had 406 yards total offense, and Johnson completed 12 passes in all for 279 yards… Chad Holt and Franako Smith paced a 127-yard team rushing effort with 39 yards and one touchdown each. Johnson added 24 rushing yards himself. John Harris had another mammoth effort catching the football with seven receptions for 140 yards and two scores.
Junior tight end Leonard Pope had two catches for 103 yards, 75 coming on a touchdown.”
“Joe Bruce scored the first touchdown in the first quarter for nine yards, then Smith’s score came from two out,” the article continued. “Pope made his touchdown reception for an 18-0 lead as Americus could not get any conversion points. Harris had a run of 14 consecutive points on touchdown catches of 30 and 60 yards and a run for two points. “Chad Holt had the only touchdown of the second half with a 17-yard third quarter run. Jonathan Frye kicked his second straight PAT. “On the defensive side, Early County had 125 yards total offense, only 29 on the ground. The Bobcats passed for 86 yards, but Bruce had a pass interception.”
The article then shared quotes from Soliday, who said about the match, “Our defense did a tremendous job… never really gave them a serious look at scoring and kept them in check all night long, taking all the best things they do away from them. The defensive line dominated the game. They beat them off the ball all night.”
In his conclusion, the author of the article wrote, “Americus is now on the inside track for the l-AA championship and possible home field advantage throughout the state playoffs (except for the Georgia Dome semifinals). Soliday said the challenge is to stay focused and take care of the last two regular season games.”
With eight wins under their belts, the Panthers and their fans knew that the team had as good of a shot as any at taking it all the way but, as Soliday often expressed, it would not be over until the final game had been played.
Next up for the Panthers was Albany High School, who would be traveling to Americus to battle the AHS crew on their own turf.
Be sure to join us next week as we continue to share coverage from the ATR archives of the Americus High School Panthers’ epic 2000 gridiron season.