From the Archives: A journey through AHS’ 2000-2001 football season, part 10
Published 3:15 pm Wednesday, August 9, 2017
The end is drawing near.
As the Americus Times-Recorder has looked back at the 2000 Americus High School football season for this summer’s “From the Archives” series, the ATR has, so far, chronicled the Panthers’ victories through the quarterfinal round of the state tournament. While digging through our archives, we have shared articles detailing one of the most exciting athletic periods in recent history in Americus and Sumter County, as the panthers rolled over opponent after opponent in their campaign for the state title.
Most recently, we shared the details of the Panthers’ quarterfinal victory, a 28-14 rout of the Northgate Vikings, leaving the AHS crew with only two foes standing between them and the most prestigious award in Georgia high school football.
On their journey to the title bout, the Panthers would need to defeat another talented team which sported a 12-1 record; the Charlton County Indians.
This tilt would take place on the big stage; the Georgia Dome in Atlanta before thousands of fans watching both in person and on television.
By MICHAEL MURRAY
In early December of 2000, the town of Americus was beginning to get into the holiday spirit. The city was adorned with lights and holiday decorations. Young children were making sure to mind their P’s and Q’s with a potential visit from Santa Claus right around the corner.
In national news, baseball sensation, Aaron Rodriguez, was reported to be in negotiations to sign a $250 million contract with the Texas Rangers; an amount totaling more than twice the previous record for the highest contract ever signed in the MLB. During that period, 28-year-old Florida State quarterback, Chris Wienke, became one of the oldest players ever to be awarded the Heisman Trophy after leading the Seminoles to their third national championship appearance.
The trial of Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was nearing a close after he waived his right to further appeals. At the same time, media giants, America Online and Time-Warner had just announced a merger that would be hailed as the largest media deal in U.S. history.
On the local front, the ATR’s pages contained articles on the upcoming opening of a new Krystal restaurant and the local Board of Education’s proposal to set aside $46 million in SPLOST for their plans to begin construction on a new school building.
Throughout every issue of the Times-Recorder, there were local advertisements and fan letters wishing the Panthers luck and expressing the community’s pride in the team.
It seemed that what the city of Americus wanted most for Christmas was a big, shiny trophy.
On Dec. 8, 2000, the Panthers lit up the dome against the Indians in a tilt that was chronicled in-depth in the Dec. 10 edition of the Times-Recorder. The front page of the edition was decorated with a huge photograph of AHS team member, Jermaine Allen, making an exciting catch with the caption “Perfect Panthers one game away from championship: STATE TITLE SHOT”.
Below this photo was a brief article titled, “Plans underway for state championship showdown” by ATR sports editor, Matthew Brown.
“Americus High football fans, putting on a show for a statewide television audience, stretched from one goal line to the other and waved cards and posters and signs stating what they want for Christmas,” the article started. “And they all want to know, ‘Who’s next?’ A better question may be, ‘Who cares?’’ Brown added, insinuating that the identity of the Panthers’ opponent in the upcoming title bout was likely irrelevant because the team had barreled past every foe up to that point and certainly wouldn’t cut their enemies any slack the following Saturday. At that point, the Panthers felt like they could take on just about any team.
“Not since the St. Louis Rams stopped the Tennessee Titans just short of the goal line at the end of Super Bowl XXXIV more than 10 months ago has the Georgia Dome seen such drama,” Brown continued. “Lady Luck came off the bus with the Americus Panthers, 20-14 Class AA semifinal winners over Charlton County High Friday to make the first experience for these high school kids on the artificial turf one to remember for the rest of their lives.
“Who will remember it the most? How about senior quarterback Robert Johnson,” the article continued. “The athlete who followed the holder of three state records, Fabian Walker, in that signal-calling position at Americus is guaranteed to finish his career with a state mark of his own. With a 3-yard slant pass to freshman Jermaine Allen, Johnson recorded his 36th touchdown pass of 2000, a new Georgia prep record.”
“It feels good to win in the Georgia Dome and break the state record,” Johnson is quoted as saying in the article, listing the accomplishments of the day in order of priority.
Brown went on to write that, despite taking a few hard hits from Charlton defenders and seeing his team trail the lead twice in the tilt, the Panthers had prevailed and Johnson inched closer to another record after completing 15 passes for 226 yards.
On page one of the sports section, ATR sports editor, Matthew Brown, penned an article titled, “Smith scores winning TD in record-setting semifinal win”, discussing the semifinal game’s action.
“Franako Smith’s 1-yard plunge into the L end zone with 4:43 remaining made the difference in an historic day of high school football at the Georgia Dome Friday,’ the article began. “Smith and the No. 3 Americus High School Panthers nudged out the No. 1 Class AA ranked Charlton County High Indians 20-14 in the state semifinals…”
He went on to write that the Panthers would be taking on the Washington-Wilkes Tigers the following Friday in Americus to determine who would claim the state’s top prize.
“Another part of this day belonged to senior quarterback, Robert Johnson,” Brown continued. “The 6-foot-3 signal caller put his name on top all by itself in the state’s single¬-season touchdown passes column. He did it in the first quarter on a 3-yard slant pattern to freshman Jermaine Allen, and it came with Americus trailing for the first time in over two months, 7-0.
“Johnson also put himself 140 yards closer to his former teammate, Fabian Walker’s, record for single-season passing yards. With an unbelievable amount of luck as well as some tremendous athleticism from receivers like Allen and John Harris….
“Harris himself hauled in seven catches, which cut what he needed to tie a single-season state record in half, for 135 yards. That puts him a mere i35 yards away from tying yet another record during the state finals.”
Brown went on to praise the Panthers’ defensive performance in the semifinal tilt, saying that the AHS line had held the Indians to only 119 yards on 41 rushes. Charlton’s Lamar Williams had been the Indians’ main yardage-earner, covering 54 yards on 13 totes.
“The Indian offense scored just one touchdown, and that was on its first series,” Brown added. “The other points came on an interception return by Harold Hannans, which again put Americus behind in the count.
“Sacking [Charlton] quarterback Barna Adams (committed to the University of Georgia) in the second half were sophomore end Tim Moore, linebackers Joe Bruce and Chad Holt and senior end, Marcus Campbell.”
Following the victory, AHS head football coach, Erik Soliday, told Brown, I guess if you’re going to be a good football team, everyone has to take turns stepping up,” about the contributions of younger players like Moore and Allen.
“I can’t give our coaches on defense enough credit. The kids learned the game plan and executed what they do well and took away their best stuff.
“I don’t know if everybody in this Dome can hem (Adams) up in the comer, he’s so quick. We were fortunate enough to keep him from getting first downs. I think that was the biggest key in the ball game.”
“Johnson wasn’t thinking about passing records on the ensuing Panther drive when he scrambled 52 yards on the turf to the Charlton 19,” Brown continued, detailing the Panthers’ initial scoring drive. “He…hit tight end Leonard Pope for first-and ¬goal at the 3. The next snap resulted in the record TD strike to Allen.”
Brown wrote that, after AHS place kicker, Jonathan Frye, nailed the PAT, the Indians would not see the opportunity to consistently threaten the Panthers.
“Lineman Cedric Boone disrupted Adams’ keeper on a fourth-down call on one series, and linebacker Felton Johnson keyed a three-and-out at the end of the first period,” Brown continued.
The Indians kept the pressure on the Panther offense, recording a few sacks on R. Johnson in the first half, but the Panthers promptly returned the favor each time around, with Campbell and Holt making significant moves to stall the Indians’ progress.
Near the end of the second half, Smith scrambled to come down with a tipped Charlton pass, landing the Panthers at their opponents’ 34, but the hard-nosed Indian defense kept the AHS crew from breaking the plane.
Charlton pressed all the way to the Americus 16 early in the second half, but jarring sacks from Eddie Sims and Bruce forced them to relinquish the ball. The Indians responded in kind on the Panthers’ return drive, forcing a turnover that the Charlton squad would utilize to score another touchdown and pull ahead.
“Unfazed, Soliday cut down on the passing plays and got Smith and Bruce involved running the football,” Brown wrote. “Charlton gave the Panthers the gift of a short kickoff, leaving them with the ball near midfield.
“The running game penetrated to the Indian 38, then on fourth down Harris leaped for a first down catch at the 22,” Brown wrote. “Luck was on the Americus shoulders again on the drive. Harris couldn’t come up with a third down pass, but the football stayed in the air for Clyde Tullis to make it 21 yards to the 5. Three plays later, Bruce was in the end zone from two out with 17 seconds left in the quarter. Frye tied the game 14-14 on the kick.”
With the score tied and the end of the game in sight, the Panther defense, particularly Holt, buckled down to hold the Indians to four downs on their return.
“The Panthers made use of plays by linemen, Joey Tucker, Boone, E. Sims, Travlis Sims, Campbell and Cliff Garth to see Smith run five times into Indian territory,” Brown continued. “Faced with fourth down, Johnson again located his man, Harris, who held on at the 19. Harris also caught first-and-goal at the 6. On third and goal, Smith went around the left end to score the game winner.”
“All year long, we felt like we were pretty balanced,” Soliday is quoted as saying after the contest. “In this game, we got into the passing mode and left the run. When we got back to the run game, both of our backs got up in there to get some really important yards.” He added that there had been no half-time adjustments to the Panthers’ offensive lineup made in the contest; and that he had simply had to stress the importance of players doing their jobs in order to help them reach their potential and earn the victory.
The Indians’ final two attempts to even the score were thwarted by Moore, who halted their drives with a pair of sacks, in addition to a game-ending interception pulled down by Holt.
Following the tilt, the Panthers returned to an enthusiactic welcome, which was described by ATR correspondent, Erik Green, in a piece titled, “Hometown heroes return”.
“Fourteen down. The smell is sweet,” Green wrote, channeling the community’s sentiment when the AHS bus pulled back into Americus.
“It has been a long season for the Americus High School football team. Fourteen brutal weeks of competition [and] injuries… is enough to break most teams, but not this one.
“It has been 25 years since an Americus High School football team has won the state championship, and four years since a team has been to the big game. This time, the Panthers will have home field advantage and a city on their side…
“As the three school buses carrying the team pulled into Americus High School at around 9 p.m. Friday, a crowd of people rushed to greet the players as they got off the bus.”
“One more to go,” someone reportedly yelled from the crowd. “Way to go guys,” another said.
AHS cheerleading coach, Heidi Goodin, was interviewed in the article, saying, “[I think the community support] is just fabulous… It shows the kids what camaraderie and community support is all about.”
“It didn’t take very long for the players to unload the bus, shed their gear, and gather around coach Soliday for final instructions, a break in the celebration,” Green continued. “That is what has to happen, according to Soliday, because on Monday, it’s business as usual.”
“We’re going to enjoy this one tonight, then tomorrow, it’s back to work to get ready for the next one,” Soliday said.
“The coaches have preached the phrase “overcome adversity” all year, according to Soliday and Friday night was just another example of putting the phrase into practice,” Green added.
“That’s what these kids have done,” said Soliday. “They have overcome adversity all year long and they did what they needed to do.”
“The crowd support at the dome was wonderful,” added Sonya Terry, one of many fans who went to Atlanta to support the team on Friday. “But it’s the kids that make it happen.”
“One to go. The taste will be better,” the article concluded.
On Dec. 12, ATR staff writer, Jon Suggs Jr. opined, “The trouble with having an unbeaten season is there’s always some pest ready to take that donut out of the loss column,” in a front-page article titled, “14-0 face-off Saturday”.
“On Saturday, the unbeaten Americus Panthers face the final such challenge as the Washington-Wilkes Tigers come to town for the Class AA title game,” Suggs wrote. “Of course, the No. 2 ranked Tigers are also undefeated and likely view No. 3 Americus in the same light – the last pest in the way of perfection.”
He went on to advise AHS fans of both teams to buy their tickets early, as the “Cat fight” would likely sell out quickly, and to invest in a blue and white raincoat, as there was a threat of inclement weather looming over the day of the big game.
A little rain certainly wouldn’t dampen the team’s or the town’s spirits, however, and everyone was prepared to give the Tigers a fight that would not soon be forgotten.
Be sure to join us next week as we wrap up this summer’s “From the Archives” series, delving into the ATR’s extensive archives one last time to share the details of the Panthers’ 2000 championship victory.