From the Archives: A journey through AHS’ 2000-2001 football season, part 8
Published 4:34 pm Wednesday, July 26, 2017
We, at the Americus Times-Recorder (ATR), are nearing the end of our trip down memory lane as we celebrate the Americus High School (AHS) Panthers’ exciting 2000 season in which the local squad plowed their way to a state championship victory.
Most recently in this summer’s “From the Archives” series, we dug into the ATR’s expansive archives to share the newspaper’s coverage of the Panthers’ initial victory in round one of the state playoffs; a 60-20 thrashing of the Brooks County Trojans.
With yet another blowout under their belts, the Panthers set their sights on the East Laurens Falcons, a tough team with their eyes on the same prize; the Georgia Class AA gridiron title.
Leading up to the match-up, one thing was apparent. The community, the fans, and the team’s opponents were all ready to see some action.
Most importantly however, the Panthers were ready to make their mark in Georgia High School football history.
By MICHAEL MURRAY
“You have to cover everybody,” Soliday chimed in. “They run some things where they get those backs running around, and you have to make sure you have everybody accounted for… They have some fast kids and some fast receivers. They are going to match up with us pretty well speed-wise.”
Brown then recounted the Panthers’ tilt the week prior which saw Brooks County make the mistake of not accounting for the wide variety of AHS offensive talents, as the Trojans had attempted to apply double coverage to John Harris, only to leave Jermaine Allen open to pull in three passes and snag a pair of six-pointers. He added that “The tailback rotation of Franako Smith and Joe Bruce got more than 100 yards rushing and one touchdown from each, Bruce leading the way with 141.”
Fortunately, for the Panthers, East Laurens had yet to defend against the type of passing attack that AHS would present.
“We hope that might be an advantage for us,” Soliday said. “But we are going to take advantage of whatever they give us. If they decide they want to take the passing game away, we’ll try to run it. If they decide they want to take the run away, we’ll try to throw it. Hopefully we can stay balanced.”
Brown took a step back from his usual expertly-executed in-depth analyses on Nov. 23, 2000; Thanksgiving, the day before the Panthers were slated to take on the Falcons.
“The school itself began its holiday break Wednesday, but there has been no break in the quest for that grand prize,” Brown wrote. “Still, how does head coach Erik Soliday keep his normally fit and trim Panthers from showing up on the football field Friday looking like a bunch of stuffed turkeys?”
In the article, Soliday reassured readers that the Panthers would be ready to rumble when the time came and that, after spending some quality time with their families, the members of AHS’ coaching staff would be ready to study game film and make some final adjustments to their attack strategy.
In concluding the article, Brown fittingly asked Soliday, assistant coach Chris Wade, and assistant coach Charles Truitt, what they were thankful for on the holiday before the match-up. Each of them expressed their gratitude for the successful season in which the Panthers had suffered only minor injuries and said that they were grateful for their families and good health.
On Nov. 24, the day of the second-round match-up, Brown got back to serious business, discussing the ins and outs of the upcoming game.
Brown kicked off the article, stating that the Panthers would love the opportunity to snap the Falcons’ wishbone formation the same way that so many wishbones had been snapped the previous evening around the dinner table.
He went on to say, “The Panthers have given up an average of 11 points a game and have held some teams to the red side of zero in total yards. Which Panther is doing the most damage? Take your pick.
“Defensive tackle Eddie Sims has the most total tackles with 84, 20 for a loss, and has 10 1/2 quarterback sacks. Linebacker Joe Bruce has 55 tackles and four sacks, and lineman Warren Gooden has 55 tackles, 12 for a loss. Also from the linebacker slot, Chad Holt has 49 tackles, four-and-a-half sacks, and six forced fumbles. Linebacker, Felton Johnson, was the big defensive star last week against Brooks County, intercepting two passes and taking both in for touchdowns. Franako Smith, who is a big yard producer at running back, has a team-leading four interceptions playing in the secondary, and he took one in the end zone against Sumter County. When talking about tackles for loss, end Tim Angrish is also up there with 12 and the other end, Marcus Campbell has nine.”
Brown also advised readers that there was a potential for inclement weather on the day of the game, an obstacle that the Panthers had been lucky enough to avoid throughout the season.
“The Panthers, on offense, do not rely on one method of moving the football, so adaptability to conditions should not pose a major problem, Brown said.
The following Sunday, on Nov. 26, Brown confirmed these earlier predictions in an article titled, “Panthers pummel Falcons”, detailing AHS’ win.
“Nothing, not fumbling the opening kickoff, not rain coming out of the sky, not a 100-yard disadvantage in penalties, could stop the march of the Americus High School football team Friday night,” Brown wrote.
“Quarterback Robert Johnson and receiver John Harris connected three times for touchdowns as the No. 3 Panthers smothered East Laurens High 48-0 in a Class AA state second round at Finklea-Robinson Field…
“Even though he was sacked three times and had to scramble from sideline to sideline at times, Johnson got off 22 passes with 14 completions for 245 yards and four touchdowns.
“Harris had half the receptions, seven, for 162 yards. A 244-yard team rushing effort was bolstered by a 76-yard end-around touchdown run by freshman receiver Jermaine Allen…
“The Panther defense only gave up two double digit running plays to East Laurens’ wishbone attack, both of those coming in the first quarter. The Falcons had just 31 rushing yards in the game and 36 passing while losing three fumbles.
Brown went on to say that the Falcons had threatened when the wet conditions caused an AHS fumble on the opening kickoff, but the Panther defense, particularly Eddie Sims, Tim Angrish, Kent Margin, and Felton Johnson, managed to minimize the damage.
“East Laurens lost the football on downs, but the Panthers had to start from their own 4 on a holding call,” the article continued. “The bad field position did not bother Franako Smith on a 20-yard run. On third-and-nine from the 36, Johnson got the protection from tackle Travlis Sims to throw to tight end Leonard Pope at the Falcon 45… The drive continued with Johnson firing to Harris underneath. The junior then raced to the sidelines, where he made it a 30-yard gain to the 20. Harris was wide open two plays later for a 17-yard touchdown pass. Jonathan Frye kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead at 5:14 remaining in the first quarter.”
R. Johnson managed to overcome a high snap and plow his way to the Falcon 24 on the Panthers’ following drive and Joe Bruce added another 19 yards to the five for first and goal.
“On third down”, Brown wrote, “Johnson rolled to his right and placed the ball in the numbers of Smith for an eight-¬yard touchdown. Frye kicked another PAT for a 14-0 lead with nine seconds to go in the first. “Angrish showed his explosiveness at the end spot throwing [Terrell] Moore for the biggest lost-¬yards tackle at the quarter’s end. In the second, Falcon quarterback Leonard Davis blew an option play by fumbling the football. E. Sims recovered at the visitors’ 19. “Americus needed to overcome another holding call, so Smith did the counter run for 15 yards then Harris caught a 15-yarder for first-and-goal at the 5. On third down, Smith carried the football in from six out for his second touchdown and 20-0 lead 8:57 from the half.”
Brown went on to say that the Falcons’ defensive line struggled to keep E. Sims and Angrish out of the backfield throughout the remainder of the game.
After halting East Laurens’ progress on their return drive, Pope and Angrish picked up on the signs of a fake punt attempt and squashed it, leaving the Panthers in possession once more at their opponents’ 22.
“This was a rare drive for the first string that did not produce points,” Brown added. “Another failed East Laurens drive later and the anger quickly turned to cheers on Allen’s big play of the night. He took the reverse hand-off, put on a spin move, then was untouched for the score. Frye kicked the extra point for the 27-0 lead at 2:26 until the break.”
He then went on to praise Angrish and Marcus Campbell for helping to thwart East Laurens’ progress in their answering series of downs.
“Never a team to waste any time, Americus started a final first half drive at its 15,” he continued. “R. Johnson threw first-down passes to Pope and Harris up to the Falcon 40. With 18 seconds to go, R. Johnson scrambled and scrambled and scrambled. Campbell threw one good nudge block as the buzzer sounded, and Johnson unleashed the ball to Harris for the touchdown. Frye’s PAT made it 34-0 at the half.”
“That’s something we work on every day, something called a scramble drill,” Soliday is quoted in the article as saying. “I’m so glad it paid off tonight. Robert stays cool back there, and he did a good job tonight.”
Brown then recapped the Panthers’ final pair of scores. “Johnson came back in the second half to shake off a sack to get a pass to Allen that set up a first-down run for Smith at the Falcon 37. He then threw a screen to Harris, who again used the sideline to gain 35 yards to the 7. Three plays later, Harris had his third TD catch, a 1-yarder, and Frye had another PAT (41-0). “Felton Johnson recovered a fumble by reserve quarterback, Chan Metts, at the Falcon 20. Two plays later, Bruce was in the end zone from 18 out, and Frye completed the scoring at 2:47 of the third. Campbell had the team’s third fumble recovery, this one by Davis, in the fourth quarter.”
As the buzzer sounded, the Panthers had punched their ticket to the third round of the state playoffs, in which the AHS team would host the Northgate Vikings, of Newnan, Ga.
Leading up to the Panthers’ next match-up, Harvey Simpson penned an article that was included in the Nov. 28, 2000 edition of the Times-Recorder called, “Panthers get Northgate Vikings next”.
In the piece, Simpson discussed the previous weekend’s gridiron action from all over the state and the repercussions of several match-ups and how they would affect Friday’s games.
The Vikings had earned their spot in round three with a 17-14 victory over Putnam County the previous Friday.
The article went on to say that the two teams had seen no common enemies during that season, but that the Vikings had opened up their 2000 campaign with a test against Suter County neighbors, the Macon County Bulldogs, which the Newnan team won 7-0.
Nearly every edition of the Times-Recorder contained some mention of the Panthers during the end of Nov. 2000, with articles being published about the Panthers’ “good luck charm”, a black Panther statuette that had been donated to the team in 1996, as well as the economic boost that “Panther fever” had brought to Americus and Sumter County.
In the Times-Recorder’s Dec. 1, 2000 issue, Brown penned a preview of the upcoming round-three action titled, “Competition steps up with Northgate tilt” to help stoke the fires of the community’s excitement.
“One more win, 48 more minutes, and it’s back to the Georgia Dome for the Americus High School football team,” the article began. “As big a target as that is – the semifinals of the state Class AA football tournament – it would be easy for these young Panthers to overlook the quarterfinal game tonight. There is another team that would love to steal that spot from the No. 3-ranked team in the state, and that’s the Northgate Vikings…
Brown went on to explain that Northgate had earned the number-one seed in Region 5-AA with an 11-1 record.
As round three drew nearer, Soliday, once again, remained cautiously optimistic about the Panthers’ chances of bringing home the win.
“They have great team speed,” Soliday is quoted as saying in the article. “Their speed as a team is probably as good as we’ve seen overall. They are very well coached, very disciplined. They don’t make many mistakes. They play hard for four quarters, so we are going to have our hands full.”
Even Brown, who up to that point, had seemingly remained convinced that the Panthers were pretty much unstoppable, posited that the Northgate match-up might be the first time in the 2000 season that the Panthers would have to stay on their toes from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.
‘’Their quarterback is an excellent athlete,” added Soliday. “He throws the ball really well. They have a good running back (No. 22) who can fly and run hard. They have a nice receiver (No. 4) who catches the ball really well and is pretty fast… Defensively, they have two inside linebackers who both run well and hit pretty hard.’’
All season long, the Panthers had been able to control the line of scrimmage with their penetrating offense and defenders who had a knack for making their way into the backfield before their opponents could blink. The Vikings, it seemed, could potentially give the AHS squad some trouble.
“The line of scrimmage is definitely going to be a key match-up,” concluded Soliday. “If we can handle them up front. that will allow us to get to that second level. If we can’t handle them up front and let those linebackers go, they are going to make some plays on us. “It’s the same thing on the defensive side of the ball. If their linemen control us, the running back’s going to have some seams to run in. If we control the line and prevent them from getting some lanes to turn up in, we can play pretty competitively defensively.”
As the level of competition steadily rose for AHS, so did the Panthers’ determination and spirit. With a pair of playoff match-ups behind them in which AHS had scored 108 points and given up only 20, the Panthers would be looking to extend their streak against a very tough Northgate team.
Be sure to join us next week as we continue to delve into the ATR’s coverage of the Americus High School Panthers’ epic 2000 football season. In the next installment of our “From the Archives series, we will be discussing the last half of the Georgia Class AA playoffs as the Panthers had only three opponents standing between them and the state title.