From the Archives: A journey through AHS’ 2000-2001 football season, part 6

Published 1:38 pm Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Editor’s note:
Regular readers of the Americus Times-Recorder are likely aware that, for the past several weeks, the ATR has devoted its weekly “From the Archives” series to yet another exciting period in local sporting history; the Americus High School Panthers’ 2000 season that resulted in the school bringing home its fifth state championship trophy.
In our latest installment of the series, we took a look back into our extensive archives to share the details of the Panthers’ blowout victories over Turner County and Early County in the waning season. The AHS crew had taken down Turner County 40-15 on Oct. 20 and went on to deal a 42-0 blow to Early County the following week.
With eight victories under their belts, the mighty Panther squad showed no signs of slowing down as they set about preparing to take on another long-time rival, the Albany High School Indians.
In the beginning of November of 2000, the nation was enthralled with an increasingly-heated presidential election that pitted hopefuls, George W. Bush and former vice president, Al Gore, in a fierce battle for one of the most respected titles in the world; that of the U.S. president. In Sumter County’s local politics, things were beginning to heat up as well, with the county facing a budget deficit with no apparent solution and a contentious race between incumbent sheriff, Randy Howard, and challenger, Bob Ingle, for the right to serve the community as Sumter County sheriff.
In other local news, the ATR was reporting that Jimmy Carter had been recently interviewed by Katie Couric, on the National Park Service’s decision to dedicate the former president’s boyhood home as a National Historic Site.
In the local sports pages, Southland Academy ace pitcher Brent Carter, was preparing to sign a letter of intent to join the University of Alabama Crimson Tide on the baseball diamond the following year. At the same time, the Georgia Southwestern Lady Hurricanes volleyball team was well on their way to securing a championship win of their own in the Georgia Alabama Carolina Conference (GACC).
Meanwhile, the Times-Recorder reported that local swimmer, Karina Malmquist, had recently made a name for herself, winning five of five events at the Hurricane Classic in Columbus.
On the regional gridiron, the Sumter County High Rams were gearing up to end a somewhat discouraging season on a high note, as the team would soon wrap up the regular season with a 34-8 thrashing of Terrell County High School. The Schley County Wildcats, who were yet to bring home a “W” in the first-ever season of their football program, also turned their luck around in the beginning of the month, earning a 21-16 victory over Stewart-Quitman, with many more to come.
The Panthers, however, were busy stealing the show on the local football front, as the team had built up a great deal of momentum in their previous eight games and, by all accounts, had their eyes on one goal; the state championship.
In the Nov. 2, 2000 edition of the Times-Recorder, ATR Sports editor, Matthew Brown, posed a question to the paper’s readers, in a preview article titled, “Will Albany make Americus go four quarters?”
“Looking at a team standing on top of Region 1-AA, it would be easy to believe that Americus High School doesn’t have many more challenges left until the postseason begins. The Panthers are still ranked No. 3 in the state, 8-0 overall and 5-0 in the region after putting 80 points on the board and only allowing 15 the last two weeks,” the article began.
“Erik Soliday and his staff know, however, that there are two regular season games to go before any play-off talk can begin. Still, after going on the road and blasting some strong competition from Turner County and Early County, there doesn’t appear to be anything on the surface to worry about this Friday against Albany High at Finklea Robinson Field,” he added.
Brown went on to say that the Albany High Indians had only one region win in the record books up to that point in the season, and that that victory had come against a relatively weak team in the region.
AHS head coach, Erik Soliday, took a more cautious approach, however, when he was interviewed by Brown.
In the article, Brown quoted Soliday as saying that Albany had a relatively young team that played hard but didn’t possess a lot of depth, though they had seen some success moving the football the previous week against a determined Turner County crew. Soliday cited their skills in the quarterback and tailback positions as potential threats to the Panthers stating, “Anytime you face an option team, there are potential problems if someone were to miss an assignment…”
“… They’re not as big and not overall as fast as anyone we’ve faced,” he conceded reassuring Panther fans that their home team would be ready for whatever the Albany Indians might throw their way.
Brown went on to sing the praises of AHS’ defensive line, writing, “Americus’ defensive averages through eight games should put the Panthers among the best in all of Georgia. Yards alone are hard to get against the Americus defensive front as the team gives up 89.8 per game. Only 36 of those yards come on the ground.”
Seemingly, with the assurance that the Panthers would be able to hold off the Indians’ attack, Brown began to focus on the long-term, asking Soliday what fans might be able to expect from the Panthers in the future, as the playoffs were drawing near and, by that point, AHS was almost certain to get a good position in the rankings.
“Soliday’s main concern with the last two games is that his No. 1 offensive unit hasn’t had to play a full football game. At Early County, quarterback Robert Johnson, tailback Franako Smith and crew were only on the field for one half,” Brown wrote before quoting Soliday as saying, “It makes it tough when you don’t play your main guys for four quarters… We will have to be prepared for a full game when the playoffs come.”

PERFECT PANTHERS! This pair of photos was proudly displayed on the front page of the ATR on Nov. 12, 2000 after the Panthers won their final regular season tilt against the Seminole County Indians. The photos’ original cutline read: WINNING TEAM – It doesn’t get any better than 10-0! That is what Americus High School is celebratingafter a 10th straight win, fourth straight by dominating fashion… In the 52-13 romp, some of the major players were Franako Smith (25) with 130 rushing yards and two touchdowns and John Harris (4) with 146 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

Brown added that the experience that some of the younger players on the team had been getting as the Panthers’ starters dominated the initial halves of each game they stepped on the field for, could potentially be a boon for the team before moving on to discuss quarterback, Robert Johnson’s impressive performance on the 2000 season.
“With 624 passing yards in those last two wins, Johnson is well on his way to a 2,000-yard season,” Brown wrote. “He needs 251, and his average is 219 yards a game.”
Of course, the AHS crew went into the tilt confident that they would be able to pull in a win over the Indians and that’s exactly what they did thanks, in part, to another stellar performance from Johnson as well as a slew of Panther receivers.
On Nov. 5, 2000, the Sunday after the match-up, the ATR dutifully recounted the previous Friday’s gridiron action in an article titled, “Panthers claim region crown”, credited to staff reports.
“It’s been said many times in many ways,” the article began. “The steam-rolling machine that is the Americus High School football team put another Region 1-AA game to rest early, blasting Albany High 62-7 Friday at Finklea-Robinson Field.
“The victory secured the 1-AA championship for Erik Soliday’s bunch, which is 9-0 overall and 5-0 in the region with a road game at Seminole County High concluding the regular season next Friday.
“Soliday said the offensive execution against Albany was the best it has been all season, using a no-huddle approach to score on drives of 1:04, 2:26, 1:00 and :35. The Panthers had 258 rushing yards and quarterback, Robert Johnson, threw for 266 yards, eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark for the season.”
The article continued, saying that Soliday had conceded that the team had made a few slight mistakes early in the contest, due to some confusion in reading the Indians’ option game, but soon acclimated to the new playing style after giving up some yardage and one touchdown to the visitors.
After the Panthers’ starters got the game under control, Soliday called in the reserves, who he said, “also did a good job keeping the visitors in check”.
In the match-up, Johnson connected on six touchdown passes, with John Harris on the receiving end of four. Harris caught touchdown passes of 15 and 48 yards for Americus’ first two scores, putting the Panthers ahead to stay and setting the tone for the remainder of the test.
Johnson also connected with Smith for a 25-yard touchdown in the initial frame.
“Johnson made it five touchdown passes in a row going 54 yards to Harris and 18 yards to man Jermaine Allen in the second quarter,” the article continued. “The Panthers finally scored on the ground with Smith running in from three out and Kent Margin from two out before the end of the half.”
“The article’s author then turned his attention to the Panthers’ powerful defense, writing, “Defensive end, Tim Angrish, represented the defense in the scoring column with a quarterback sack in the end zone.”
“Soliday planned to give his offense just one series in the second half and that one ended in two plays with Johnson notching touchdown No. 6, a 32-yard strike to Harris,” the author continued, adding, “Joe Bruce scored the final touchdown with a two-yard run.”
In the match-up, Smith and Bruce had each rushed for 104 yards and Harris had come down with five catches, contributing an impressive 169 yards for the Panther cause.
The author concluded the article with praise of the other members of the Panthers’ hard-nosed offense, writing, “Soliday said the offensive line had a solid outing as well in picking up the stunts. That line consists of Joey Tucker, Marcus Campbell, Travelis Sims, Cliff Garth, Antwon Cross, and Leonard Pope.”
With one more match-up standing between the Panthers and a perfect regular season, the team’s fans were anxious to see if the AHS squad would be able to pull it off.
To help feed the wave of excitement that was sweeping the community and assuage the uncertainty of team’s few doubters, Brown published a piece in the Nov. 9, 2000 edition of the Times-Recorder called, “Soliday responds to tough Americus questions”.
In the article, Brown asked Soliday, “What’s on the mind of the Panthers now that they are Region 1-AA champions? Seminole County High or the state playoffs?”
Soliday responded, “I think the kids are pretty well focused on this last game… It’s important for them to finish 10-0, especially the seniors… We’re trying to concentrate on this game… to finish with a perfect season.”
Brown then reminded readers that the Panthers had amassed 142 points and given up only 22 in the past three games before asking the AHS head coach, “Is this game with the [Seminole County] Indians going to be much different?”
Soliday informed Brown that the Seminole team might present challenges that the Panthers had not faced in the past several games, saying, “They do things well on offense and defense. They have pretty good-sized kids, good speed, and are well-coached. They are capable of playing good football and they play consistently. You definitely have to be prepared to play them.”
He added that the Indians’ roster contained a pair of running backs that were probably as good as any two on any team in the state at the time.
“When they get close, they can take it the length of the field in a hurry,” Soliday added.
Brown then turned his attention to the Panthers, saying, “The Americus offensive numbers are certainly on the gaudy side.” He then asked Soliday for his thoughts on Johnson’s performance as the quarterback had contributed 2,068 yards and 23 touchdowns passing in the team’s previous nine games.
“He’s done a good job of checking into a lot of plays and putting the balls where we can catch them,” said Soliday. ‘’As the season progressed, the timing got better and better. As the timing got better, so did the numbers. In the last half of the season, we haven’t had to play a full game, so a lot of this has been done in a half or three quarters.”
Brown then asked if AHS fans could expect to see the Panthers’ starters go the full four quarters in the upcoming match-up in preparation for the playoffs.
“We’re going to do what we have to do to win,” Soliday answered, adding that it might be a good idea, if possible, to give some of the players that the team was depending heavily on some time to rest before the following week’s match-up, which he anticipated would be a tough one.
Brown then asked Soliday for comment on the progress of Harris who, in the Panthers’ past four games, had contributed 12 touchdowns including four in the previous Friday’s game. At that point, Harris had pulled in 51 passes for 357 yards.
“His confidence is getting better and better every week, said Soliday. “He runs terrific routes and he’s starting to catch the ball really well and he’s getting a lot of yards after his catches. He’s learning how to time the catch and where to run to. He has really progressed…”
The following Sunday on Nov. 12, the ATR included photos of Harris and Smith in action on the front-page paper with a bold caption, proudly declaring, “Perfect Panthers!” in reference to the Panthers’ victory over Seminole County.
Inside the paper, on the sports page, Brown published an article titled, “Panther machine crushes Indians”.
In the article, which detailed AHS’ final regular-season victory, Brown wrote, “No changes in the scenario of a successful night of football for the Americus High School Panthers. The record is 10-0 for Erik Soliday’s bunch, and the result at Seminole County High was just as impressive as the previous three Fridays, a 52-13 win.”
“The kids came out and executed well, scoring on seven out of seven possessions,” Soliday is quoted as saying in the article. “It’s nice to finish 10-0. Now we just need to get ready for the next step and take things one at a time.”
Brown went on to say that, with the Panthers’ impressive record, the AHS crew would be able to enjoy home field advantage in the first four games of the playoffs, scheduled to begin the following Friday.
The Panthers would see familiar faces on the field in that tilt, those of Brooks County’s players. Brooks County was formerly a member of Region 1-AA.
“Against Seminole, Americus scored all of its 52 points in a row, 45 in the first half,” the article read. “The starting varsity then had its usual second-half rest. On the defensive side, Soliday said the first unit held the home Indians to minus-22 yards of offense.”
“We kept them in their back¬field and got pressure on the quarterback making it tough for him to throw,” said Soliday in the article. “The defensive line played really well. Eddie Sims had a good game.”
“In fact, Sims got a defensive touchdown in the first quarter when his fellow tackle, Cedric Boone, blocked a punt. Sims took the football 40 yards for a score,” the article continued. “Those whose job it is to score points for the Panthers did their part as well. Americus had 317 rushing yards, and quarterback Robert Johnson completed six of nine passes for 178 yards. Soliday had praise for the entire offensive line, citing Travlis Sims, Joey Tucker, Marcus Campbell and Cliff Garth with having outstanding games.”
“In this four-game stretch of blowout victories, Americus has had all players in all positions playing at the same level with no discernible breakdowns. Soliday said they have played consistently and with confidence.
“Receiver John Harris caught four passes for 146 yards and Americus’ first two touchdowns. Those passes from Johnson covered 41 and 50 yards.
“The Panthers then kept the ball on the ground as Franako Smith carried seven times for 130 yards and Joe Bruce toted 10 times for 112 yards. Smith had a seven-yard touchdown in the first quarter and, along with Sims’ score, the period ended at 26-0.
“Bruce scored three touchdowns, with second quarter runs of one and eight yards and a 30-yard run in the third quarter. Smith had a three-Yard run in the second.
“Seminole wound up with 94 yards of offense and touchdowns of 18 and seven yards in the second half.”
And just like that, the Panthers had made a name for themselves as the team to beat in the Class AA playoffs, a feat which would not be accomplished, though five more teams would try.
Be sure to join us next week as we continue to pore over our archives and share details of the Americus High School Panthers’ epic 2000 season.