From the Archives: A journey through AHS’ 2000-2001 football season, part 7
Published 11:53 am Thursday, July 20, 2017
In the Americus Times-Recorder’s (ATR) exploration of the Americus High School (AHS) Panthers’ colossal 2000 gridiron season, as part of this summer’s “From the Archives” series, we have, so far, discussed the team’s first 10 wins of the regular season as the Panthers plowed their way into the state playoffs.
At last, we’ve reached the point where this story gets really interesting. With an undefeated record in Region 1-AA, the 2000 Panthers had made a name for themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the Georgia football field and the team had shown, repeatedly, that they had their eyes on the biggest prize in high school football.
In our latest edition of the “From the Archives” series, we discussed the Panthers’ final two blowout wins of the regular season, a 62-7 thrashing of the Albany High School Indians and a 52-13 conquest over the Seminole County Indians.
With these wins behind them, the Panthers immediately began their preparations for the state playoffs, in which the competition was certain to become much more aggressive.
By MICHAEL MURRAY
In early November of 2000, many local schools were eagerly anticipating the upcoming basketball season, as all of the football teams in the ATR’s coverage area had recently wrapped up their gridiron campaigns… except for one, of course.
As families were beginning to make preparations for the upcoming holiday season, the ATR was busily reporting on the Sumter County Parks and Recreation Department’s 9-10-year-old football All-Star team, which had just won the semifinal round of the Georgia Region Invitational in Hawkinsville, in which the up-and-coming young gridiron squad had soundly defeated Cochran/Bleckley County 25-0.
At the same time, the ATR reported that the Sumter Players had begun working alongside Georgia Southwestern to stage a production of the Wizard of Oz while Sumter County Schools superintendent was reporting that the school system had shown marked improvement in their standardized test scores the past year.
The national headlines remained heavily focused on Miami-Dade County, Fla. and the manual presidential vote recount that would determine whether or not George W. Bush or Al Gore would have the opportunity to serve the country as the 43rd President of the United States.
None of this news, however, could eclipse the wave of excitement that had swept over Americus and Sumter County as the Times-Recorder dutifully reported on the team’s ever-expanding string of successes.
After the Panthers capped off their regular season offensive, ATR sports editor, Matthew Brown, immediately set about informing readers of what was to come.
On Nov. 15, 2000, Brown published the first in a series of articles detailing the upcoming action for the Americus squad titled, “Coach not taking No. 4 seed lightly”.
In the article, he discussed the Panthers’ 1999 playoff appearance after the AHS crew bounced back from a rough start in the regular season to earn a spot in the post-season.
“This is significant because Americus, the Region 1-AA champions, is hosting the fourth-place team out of Region 2-AA, which is 4-6 Brooks County High,” Brown wrote. “The Trojans are coming to Finklea-Robinson Field for the first time since losing to the Panthers last season in a 1-AA game that helped propel Americus to the postseason [in 1999].
“So, this No. 1 vs. No. 4 game should be quite easy… Americus is on such a roll of late that head coach, Erik Soliday, has practically thrown in the towel for the other team by pulling his starters after the first half… Well, that 5-5 Americus team was the No. 4 seed from 1-AA in 1999, but was playing by far its best football of the season in the second half. That included a high-scoring loss to then-No. 1 ranked Mitchell-Baker in Camilla. The Panthers went on to take Swainsboro High, a top 5 team also, to overtime before the season came to an end.”
Brown went on to remind readers that Brooks County had gotten off to a 1-6 start in the 2000 season and, much like the Panthers team of the previous year, would not be taking their berth in the playoffs for granted.
“No. 1 vs. No. 4 doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot when it comes playoff time,” said AHS head coach, Erik Soliday in the article. “The regions are all different. So, it’s really like a new season. Everyone’s starting over.
“Brooks is playing the best ball it has all year right now. They have played a tough schedule, and right now they are playing good football. Fortunately, they were able to get some region wins late in the year and get on a roll.”
Soliday also conceded to Brown that the Brooks County Trojans may have been a slightly better team than the Panthers were in 1999 and that the Trojans and the 2000 Panthers were pretty evenly-matched in terms of size, as well as their multi-faceted attack on the offensive side of the ball.
“We’re going to have to be ready to play a full game,” Soliday concluded in the article. “This one’s going to be a war. I hope we can go out and execute and put a good game together. We’re definitely going to have to play the whole game.”
ATR news editor, John Suggs, Jr. got in on the excitement as well in the Nov. 17, 2000 edition of the ATR with a piece titled, “Americus begins state title run tonight”.
“Q: What’s blue and white and quivering with excitement tonight?” the article began.
“A: Americus High School.”
Suggs went on to write, “The anticipation can be felt throughout the school – from the front office to the cafeteria through every hallway and out the doors to the front lawn.
“The school is, in a word, charged.
“Charged and ready for what will prove, hopefully, to be just the first in a series of playoff games as the Panthers cast their eyes towards a state title.
Suggs included a brief interview with AHS principal, Juanita Wilson, who told him, “I think this is a real significant game for us… We were in this same place 25 years ago.”
Wilson was referring to the 1975 Panther team that swept the season with an undefeated record and earned the state championship trophy.
Suggs continued, “Although she would not further compare the two teams or dare to make a prediction of duplicating that success of a quarter of a century ago – superstition has a strong place in sports, and counting unhatched chickens isn’t a good idea anywhere – Wilson did express confidence in the team and pride in the school’s spirit for the team.”
For the article, Suggs also interviewed AHS cheerleading coach, Heidi Goodin, who said, “We have a big pep rally planned… We’re making lots of signs and we’ll have spirit contests throughout the day… We’re really excited,” she said. We’re really looking forward to seeing what they can do.”
“The players are a little more amped than usual,” added senior cheerleader, Dee Glover. “They know every game could be their last.”
Deeper in that same edition of the ATR, Brown elaborated a little on the Panthers’ upcoming tilt with an article named, “Panthers begin title quest”.
“As the No. 3-ranked team in the state, there are only two teams in the AA classification that could make the Americus High School football Panthers an underdog,” Brown wrote. “So maybe it doesn’t really matter who lines up on the other side in the first round of the state playoffs tonight at Finklea-Robinson Field.
“But what if you were on the opposite sidelines, having to figure out a way to stop the unstoppable wave of yards and points Americus has produced not just the last four weeks, but in a 10-game span?”
Soliday answered Brown’s question in the article, saying, “If we were playing against us, I would just hope for a lot of luck I guess.”
“Maybe hope a tornado comes through and we didn’t have to play them,” Soliday joked.
Brown went on to remind fans that, if the Panthers did have to play against their doppelgangers, their offense, which had averaged 442 yards per game would be pitted against a defense that had only yielded 90 points and 1,061 yards in 10 games.
“The true championship sequence for Americus may have come at Turner County High when, thanks to Felton Johnson and Leonard Pope, Rebel power back Jason Walker was stuffed twice at the 1-yard line,” Brown continued, discussing one of the Panthers’ most exciting lopsided wins up to that point. “When the region’s leading rusher did not score, and was subsequently taken out of the game with an injury, Americus went on a near 100-yard scoring drive to take a 13-0 lead. Though Turner scored off a turnover, Americus scored 27 straight to win 40-15.
“Since then, there haven’t been many turnovers, missed assignments or breakdowns that could swing a game in a different direction. The Panther offensive and defensive lines, where Marcus Campbell, Tim Angrish and Joey Tucker reign supreme, have only known one direction: straight ahead.”
On the team’s performance, Soliday is quoted in the article as saying, “We’ve been fortunate in the last several ball games that we’ve been able to execute pretty well… We haven’t made a lot of mistakes. It shows up when you score on just about every possession.”
“Americus players, coaches and fans hope that string doesn’t end anytime soon, especially against the Brooks Trojans,” he added before turning his attention to the numbers in the Friday-night match-up.
“The regular season numbers, though, weigh heavily in Americus’ favor,” he said. “Quarterback Robert Johnson of the Panthers has thrown 107 completions for 2,246 yards and 25 touchdowns, while Ervin Evans of Brooks has 52 completions, 734 yards and five touchdowns. Brooks’ leading rusher, Everett Cason, has 492 yards and four touchdowns while Franako Smith has given Americus 795 yards and 15 touchdowns. That does not include the receiving threat Smith has been… Junior receiver, John Harris, has recovered from a first-half full of drops to finish with 55 catches for 1,121 yards and 14 touchdowns.”
Later that evening, the teams clashed and the Panthers added yet another one-sided “W” to their record books. This time around, the Panthers’ margin of victory was 60-20.
On Nov. 19, 2000, in the Times-Recorder’s Sunday edition, Brown published an article titled, “Opportunistic AHS breezes by 40” detailing the action.
“Usually, it’s Robert Johnson, the Americus High School senior quarterback, who stands out the most in a Panther football game,” Brown began. “But in the first round of the Class AA state tournament Friday at Finklea-Robinson Field, it was a different Johnson who made the biggest difference.”
“Linebacker Felton Johnson had two interceptions that he returned 20 yards each for touchdowns…”
F. Johnson had spoken with Brown following the game, saying, “Throughout school, I just think about coming out here and playing hard all night… Good things happen when you play hard.
“He’s played hard all year,” Soliday added. “It just kind of culminated for him this evening, and I’m proud for him.”
He went on to say that R. Johnson had done his share of damage as well from the quarterback position, completing six passes for 155 yards through the air, three of which resulted in touchdowns.
Jermaine Allen had been on the receiving end of three of those passes to account for 98 yards and had converted two of them into touchdowns.
Harris had added a pair of touchdowns (one receiving and one running) in the first half as well before suffering an elbow injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the game.
“It was the Panther running game, particularly the work of the Americus offensive line, that wore down the Trojan defense,” the article continued. “The 346 rushing yards gained gave the home team 501 yards for the game.
“Linemen Marcus Campbell, Joey Tucker, Travlis Sims, Cedric Boone, and Cliff Garth left several wide-open gaps for Joe Bruce and Franako Smith. These backs burst through the holes for several double-digit gains. Bruce had 15 carries for 141 yards and Smith 10 rushes for 112 yards and the Panthers had 21 first downs.”
Soliday, in the article, said that the Trojans had made the cardinal error (also made by many others in that season) of attempting to double cover some of the Panthers’ receivers.
“(Brooks) kind of geared up for the passing game,” he said. “They double covered some folks. Like we have all year, we took advantage of what they gave us. Our line did a tremendous job blowing them off the line of scrimmage, and the backs hit it in there hard.”
The Trojans did manage to pull off 170 offensive yards against the Panthers, but the Panthers made up for lost ground by pulling in a pair of interceptions and turning two fumbles into touchdowns.
“Defensively, Smith nearly had an interception and Harris broke up another pass on Brooks’ first series,” Brown wrote. “After tight end Leonard Pope cleared a way for Bruce to gain 33 yards to the 7-yard-line, Harris scored the first touchdown on an end¬around run from six yards out at 7:50 of the first quarter. Jonathan Frye notched the PAT for a 7-0 lead.”
On Brooks’ return drive, Chad Holt forced a fumble and recovered the ball at the Trojan 42. Smith then sprang into action, adding another 33 yards and, three plays later, Holt scored from the one to put the Panthers up 13-0.
“Before the first quarter was over, R. Johnson, on fourth-and-10, fired a bullet up the middle for 27-yard touchdown pass to Allen,” Brown continued. “On Brooks’ first play after the kick-off, F. Johnson grabbed an interception for a 22-yard TD return. The lead was 25-0 with 1:03 left in the first period… Campbell, Tim Angrish and Eddie Sims had control of the line on the defensive side during this sequence to keep Brooks from first downs.
“In the second quarter, Americus had touchdowns 14 seconds apart,” he continued. “Smith had four carries going from his 42 to the Trojan 4. R. Johnson had a nine-yard strike to Harris, and Smith ran in for two points to make it 33-0… Then Vincent White recovered a fumbled kickoff return at the Brooks 18. R. Johnson took the next snap and found Allen for a touchdown, and Frye followed with a kick, making it 40-0.
“Two plays into Brooks’ next series, F. Johnson had his second interception in the end zone, and Frye’s kick led to a 47-0 halftime lead.
“Campbell drew some cheers on defense in the third quarter with a volleyball spike of a Trojan pass. Brooks got on the scoreboard at 9:22 of the third quarter when Jermaine Dawson ripped the football away from Smith and ran 27 yards to the end zone. Smith came back, though, four minutes later with a 15-yard scoring run as Pope leveled a linebacker at the line.
“Bruce, who had a fine game at linebacker, got his only touchdown on a 23-yard fourth¬-quarter run. Frye registered point No. 60 afterwards.”
The Trojans added their final pair of touchdowns during garbage time.
As the clock wound down, the Panthers’ fans celebrated yet another notable victory and the team set their sights on the following week, when AHS would be hosting the East Laurens Falcons for round two of the playoffs.
As the community’s excitement mounted for the upcoming match-up, Brown published, on Nov. 21, another article dubbed, “East Laurens Good, Americus great”. Subtitled, “Visiting Coach full of concerns”, the article included excerpts from a telephone interview with the 9-2 Falcons head coach, Buddy Sorrow.
“We need to play great and Americus needs to play good,” said Sorrow in the interview. “[The Panthers] are very good on defense and they are quick on offense. Everyone I talk to says that they are playing better on defense than they did last year.”
He went on to say that the Falcons, which utilized a wishbone offense that the Panthers had not previously encountered that season, would be looking to establish a running game first and, “when the defense has most of its people in the box, they will go to the play-action and throw into the flat.”
“He hopes that his offense will be able to make the game short, move the clock and keep the potent Americus offense off the field,” Brown wrote.
“We cannot get into a throwing contest,” Sorrow is quoted as saying. “All that will do is bury us deeper.”
Further down in the article, Sorrow is quoted as saying, that the Panthers are “a team that can ‘drive a stake through your heart’ and can beat you throwing the football down field or ramming it up the middle out of the I formation”
“The quarterback (Robert Johnson), no one has gotten to him all year, at least not on the films I have seen,” added Sorrow. “With all that time, and all those weapons, like John Harris, Leonard Pope, and Jermaine Allen, we can’t play them man to man.”
At that point in the season, the Falcons had suffered only two losses, both of which came at the hands of state-ranked teams.
The Panthers would do everything in their power to raise that number to three losses the following Friday.
Be sure to join us next week as we continue to delve into the ATR’s expansive archives and share the details of AHS’ round-two playoff contest against East Laurens as well as the team’s third playoff conquest against Northgate High School.