From the Archives: A journey through AHS’ 2000-2001 football season, part 9
Published 2:38 pm Wednesday, August 2, 2017
As part of the Americus Times-Recorder’s 2017 “From the Archives” series, the ATR has spent the summer digging into our archives to explore the paper’s coverage of the Americus High School (AHS) Panthers’ initial 12 victories of the 2000 season; a period that many locals consider to be one of the most exciting bursts of local athletic excellence in recent memory.
With a dozen wins on the books, the Panthers’ next challenge would come from the Northgate Vikings on Dec. 1, 2000 at Finklea-Robinson Field in Americus.
Though the Panthers had had little trouble putting each and every one of their opponents away up to that point in the season, the team and their fans knew that, with each new victory, the level of competition would kick up another notch.
By MICHAEL MURRAY
In early December of the year 2000, the national news was busily keeping the public informed as newly-elected U.S. president, George W. Bush, was preparing for his move into the White House. Around that same time, the Associated Press was reporting that hundreds of music enthusiasts had gathered in New York City’s Central Park to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Beatles frontman, John Lennon.
On the local front, the Times-Recorder included articles on the Sumter County School Board’s proposal to build a new school facility. At the same time, the ATR reported that four men had been arrested for operating a methamphetamine lab in neighboring Cordele and that a school bus collision on Bumphead road had occured, resulting in minor injuries to 24 students.
On the national sports scene, UGA Bulldog head football coach, Jim Donnan, had just been terminated, making way for Mark Richt to take the reins of the University of Georgia squad.
In local sports, the Georgia Southwestern Hurricanes basketball team were celebrating a 90-84 upset victory over the previous year’s National Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champions, Liberty University.
On the high school court, the Panthers had just tipped off their season (minus four key players who were, rightfully, focused on the state football playoffs) with a 72-71 overtime win over Lee County High School.
The community’s attention was focused on the local gridiron, however, and the Panthers showed no signs of slowing down.
On Dec. 1, the Panthers laid their undefeated record on the line once more as they hosted the Northgate High School Vikings.
Of course, the Panthers won that tilt as well, just as they had defeated every challenger before that date.
In the Dec. 3, 2000 edition of the Times-Recorder, ATR sports editor, Matthew Brown, detailed the Panthers’ 13th victory of the season in an article titled, “Panthers earn date with Indians”.
“This time, Americus High’s football team had to win a game with a mere four touchdown plays,” the article began. “But even when the Panthers aren’t at their 100 percent best, it’s still too much for most opposition to handle.”
Brown went on to say that the Panthers had gained a 28-0 lead in the tilt before the Vikings staged a comeback effort to narrow the gap to 28-14 in the Class AA quarterfinal match-up.
By all accounts, this game marked the first time in the season that the Panthers had been challenged for a full four quarters.
“We knew all along that we could (play four quarters),” senior lineman Eddie Sims is quoted as saying in the article. “I don’t really think we expected to play four quarters. We came out and showed our championship character.”
Panther head coach, Erik Soliday, was a little more reserved, saying, “It wasn’t pretty… We really didn’t play our best game. But we did the things we had to do to keep ourselves in [and give us] a good chance to win. It wasn’t as close as we thought it was, just as close as it’s been in a while. The kids were nervous, so it was probably good for us in that respect to be in a tighter game.’’
Brown went on to say that the Panthers had been able to capitalize on a series of uncharacteristic Viking mistakes in the game. The Vikings lost four fumbles in the tilt and, though the Panthers only converted one into a touchdown, the visitors had given up four chances to score, which made a huge difference in the outcome.
“Our defense did an excellent job of hitting them and knocking the balls out,” said Soliday in the article. “I’m proud of these kids that all the hard work’s paying off.”
“Americus had a few turnovers of its own, but still had a 228-yard team rushing night and 164 passing yards
from senior quarterback Robert Johnson,” the article continued. “He had three touchdown passes, one to John Harris, who caught six balls for 115 yards, all in the first half… Franako Smith led the rushing effort with 95 yards on 16 carries while Joe Bruce had 77 yards (68 in the second half) on 12 rushes…
“The game was again decided by Americus getting on the scoreboard first and often while shutting down the opponent’s game plan.”
Northgate threatened on their opening drive, but AHS’ E. Sims and Warren Gooden squashed their attempts, stuffing an option play at the Panther 24 to force the visitors to attempt a long field goal which missed its mark.
On the Panthers’ return drive, Johnson threw an interception, a rare occurrence for the AHS senior, but Gooden returned the favor on the next play, jumping on a Viking fumble to set the Panthers up for a 46-yard, four-play scoring drive that saw Johnson plow his way 23 yards up the gut for a six-pointer. Jonathan Frye made it an even seven with his PAT kick.
The Panthers held the Vikings to three and out on their return drive thanks, in part, to a jarring tackle from Tim Angrish. The Panthers utilized a bulldozer-style run from Marcus Campbell to set Franako Smith up for a 13-yard scoring run and put the hosts up 13-0.
Once again, the Panthers held the Vikings to three and out and the visitors responded in kind.
“In the second quarter, the next near-forgotten art for Americus came up, a punt of its own,” Brown wrote. “But when Americus was supposed to not be used to punting, Northgate acted like the ones not accustomed to receiving punts. The return was dropped and recovered by Felton Johnson at the Americus 41.”
The teams traded possession three more times before the Panthers would see another chance to break the plane of the end zone.
Aided by expert blocking from E. Sims, Travlis Sims, and hard runs from Smith, the Panthers pushed the ball to their opponents’ five. From there, R. Johnson connected with Harris for another touchdown 36 seconds before halftime. This duo again showed their colors when Harris pulled in R. Johnson’s two-point conversion pass to give AHS a 21-point lead.
Early in the second half, the Panthers struck again when a pass to Jermaine Allen and several hard runs by Bruce pushed the ball to the Viking nine-yard line. From there, Johnson capped the drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Allen at the 4:50 mark.
Frye added another PAT to leave the Panthers up 28-0.
Though the visitors would add two touchdowns late in the second half, they never managed to gain enough steam to threaten the Panthers’ lead and, at the final buzzer, AHS emerged victorious.
“The celebration could not last long as the Panthers had to get right to work on the Charlton County Indians,” Brown’s article concluded.
Two days later, ATR staff writer, John Suggs Jr. penned another piece for the paper titled, “Americus gears up for Georgia Dome”.
“As another playoff approaches, the spirits at Americus High School run a little higher each day,” Suggs wrote.
“We’re Jumping out of our skins.” said AHS Principal Juanita Wilson in the article. “We can’t wait.”
“That spirit will extend out onto the front lawn of the school Thursday as students, staff and faculty will cheer on the Panther football players as they depart Americus en route to their appointment with Charlton County High noon Friday in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta,” Suggs continued.
He went on to say that playing at the Georgia Dome which was, at the time, the home of the Atlanta Falcons, could present challenges to the Panthers as the team had never practiced on artificial turf.
Around the same time, then system superintendent, Katie Brochu, had ensured that the Panthers would have a strong cheering section in the Atlanta tilt by declaring that student absences would be excused the following Friday so that some of the team’s most diehard fans could make the trip.
In that same edition of the Times-Recorder, the paper published an editorial encouraging the community to “Give our soldiers a big ‘send off’”.
“Even though the Friday night fall tradition is being moved to high noon and indoors, it’s just a small price to pay for what has been one of the most amazing sights seen in this town in a long time,” the editorial began. “From near and far in the state of Georgia, the 2000 Americus High School football team is regarded as the cream of the crop in this sport, and every¬one should be proud of them.
“We are not only proud of the play of Erik Soliday’s charges, the near-flawless execution of the offense and relentless aggressiveness of the defense, but of the show of support the community has for this team.
“There’s potentially two more rounds in this magical ride the 13-0 Panthers have taken us on, a ride that began on Sept. 1. The test will come in the Georgia Dome in the capital city; the place where Super Bowls and
SEC Championships have been decided. Americus will have its own “Super Bowl” of sorts by taking on the Class AA No. 1 team, Charlton County High. The flow of traffic up to Atlanta Friday should be heavy and steady, full of blue and white.
“We wish the Panthers all the best, to watch themselves on that artificial field and just continue to make your home proud.”
For an article in that same Dec. 5 edition of the ATR, Brown contacted Charlton County head coach, Rich McWhorter, to discuss the teams’ upcoming bout. The article was aptly titled, “Charlton Coach not anxious to play”.
“Charlton County High head football coach Rich McWhorter is just happy to be going to the Georgia Dome this weekend and is already wishing the Americus High School Panthers good luck in the state championship game,” the article began. “In fact, the Indians’ top boss is hoping Americus gets confused about the schedule and won’t show up to Atlanta until Saturday.”
Brown quoted McWhorter as saying, “We’re probably the No. 1 ranked overrated team in the state of Georgia,” before adding that the coach had guided the Indians to the Class A state championship in Folkston the previous year.
“We’re no match for Americus,” McWhorter conceded to Brown. “They are by far the best team in the state. They have an outstanding team, and I don’t see how we can match up with them.”
It seems that McWhorter may have been simply being humble, as Brown went on to say that the Indians had won 12 straight games, including a 33-9 victory over the previous year’s Class AA champions, Cartersville.
“In their trip to the Georgia Dome last season, the Indians defeated Miller County 35-19,” Brown added. “Next was a shutout of Lincoln County in the championship game.”
“We’re not near the team we were last year,” McWhorter was quoted as saying. “We’re not very big.”
McWhorter also stated that the Indians’ quarterback Barna Adams, while being a talented runner and hurler, could not compare to AHS’ R. Johnson.
““That son-of-a-gun is a player,” said McWhorter. “[The Americus offense] is incredible. You won’t find anything that good on Saturday watching college football.”
He added that the AHS defense, especially the defensive line, was the best that he had ever seen at the high school level.
“They are playing on a whole ‘nother level,” he said. “They are well-coached and hitting on all cylinders.”
McWhorters fears were founded, it seems, as was outlined in a Dec. 6 piece by Brown titled, “Johnson, Harris threaten records: Panthers on the verge of passing and receiving milestones at dome”.
“One more touchdown pass by Americus High quarterback Robert Johnson and he becomes the most prolific scoring thrower in one football season in Georgia,” the article began. “Should receiver John Harris catch that pass, it would help both him and Johnson climb a mountain that seriously began midway through the 2000 season.
“With all the pressures of playing No. 1 ranked Charlton County… the opportunities to make individual state history are probably far from the minds of these Panther stars. Still, the numbers are there, numbers these players used to build an unblemished 13-0 record and earn the weekend trip.”
R. Johnson’s three touchdown passes in the Panthers’ win over Northgate had brought his total to 35, tying the state record.
R. Johnson also stood at 139 completions in 248 attempts for 2,821 yards.
Brown went on to say that the state record for passing yardage (3,187) had been set by AHS alum, Fabian Walker, in 1998.
“Johnson needs 366 more to pull even, a number he has shot past before in one game,” Brown wrote. “He had 388 yards against Mitchell-Baker in 1999.
“…Harris’ numbers stand at 69 receptions for 1,403 yards and 19 touchdowns. The junior didn’t have a touchdown reception this season until the fourth game against Randolph-Clay, but has five in three play-off games. State records for receiving yards are 1,573 and 22 for touchdowns. The receiving yards record is the oldest of them all, going back to the 1970s and Stan Rome of Valdosta.”
Asked about the players’ prospects of shattering these records, Soliday told Brown, “They’re making a run at them… You never know what’s going to happen. If they don’t get them, they’ve had good years.”
“Soliday said these chases add some excitement to the preparations and semifinal game” Brown concluded. “He said that the subject doesn’t come up in meetings, but it is a mark that the team is doing things right.
“I think a win would be more important than anything else,” he added.
Deeper in that same edition, on Dec. 6, Brown included some outside analysis of the Charlton crew in an article titled, “Charlton earns Americus’ respect”.
“Eugene Abrams of Macon County High says it’s the state championship game of Class AA,” the article started. “Rusty Tondee of Schley County High says it’s the best game of the 10 slated for the Georgia Dome this weekend.”
Brown recapped the earlier article in which McWhorter “didn’t have much to say about his team.”
Soliday, however, had plenty of respect for the Charlton roster (which included a pair of UGA commits) in his pregame comments.
“[Charlton] may be the best team in the state in any class,” said Soliday in the article. “They are probably the fastest team in the state in any classification. They have more speed on one team at every position than any team I’ve ever seen. They have the size to go with it.”
He went on to sing the praises of Indian quarterback, Adams, who was one of the Bulldog commits.
“He’s an exceptional athlete,” Soliday is quoted as saying in the article. “He’s got speed to burn, really good instincts, another in that long line of speedsters to come from Folkston.”
“They have good speed in the backfield … and there’s a good-sized line,” Soliday continued. They throw the ball decently. They have a big receiver who can run. They have a lot of different weapons and do a lot of different formations to try to take advantage of that speed.”
He then added that no team can make it that far in the season without being good up front and that the Indian linemen were all talented athletes.
“Switch the lines around, and the Americus offensive front may be in for its first major challenge of the season,” Brown added.
“(Charlton) has an excellent secondary,” said Soliday. “They play man-to-man on everybody. They have folks who can run and do that. Inside they have that linebacker who’s an all¬-world linebacker (Marquis Elmore, committed to Georgia as a defensive end). They have two good ends and fast tackles. Your hands are very full trying to keep them out of your backfield. Secondary-wise, you have to throw well in the right place, otherwise they are going to break to the ball and get to it.”
Of course, Soliday still felt good about the Panthers’ chances of bringing home the win in the semifinal tilt, despite what he considered a less-than-perfect performance the previous week.
“We’ve had a lot of kids throughout the season step up and come through with big plays,” he said in the article. “They come through when they have to, and sometimes that’s the sign of a good team. We just hope folks will keep stepping up and come through at the right time…
“We are going to have to execute on both sides of the ball as well as we’ve executed all year… We can’t turn the ball over and have a huge number of penalties in a game like this.
“Our defensive line is going to have to give our quarterback time to throw the football and also open up some holes for our running backs. If we can win the battle at the line of scrimmage, it will open up possibilities on offense. Defensively, it’s a matter of containing the quarterback… keep him from making big, long runs. Then we have a chance to keep ourselves in the game.”
The following Thursday, the Panthers loaded up to head for a practice facility on which they would have the opportunity to become accustomed to the artificial turf at the Georgia Dome.
As the team left, they were cheered on by a sea of blue-and-white-clad fans holding signs of encouragement and expressing their well-wishes.
The AHS band played lively tunes over the sirens of the team’s Americus Police Department patrol car escorts as the Americus cheerleaders ensured that the fans were appropriately riled up, leading the group in chants.
The cheers continued until well after the buses were out of sight.
Just like that, the Panthers hit the road, traveling to the Georgia Dome with only two games standing between them and the state title.
Be sure to join us next week as we continue to delve into our expansive archives share the details of the Panthers’ semifinal victory over the Charlton County Indians as well as the team’s preparations for the title match-up.