Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ALBANY -- It's all about the beads, Mardi Gras beads, at that.

Sure, the Albany Panthers want nothing more than to win their first playoff game tonight against the Louisiana Swashbucklers, the defending champs.

Sure, the players on this team have been pointing to the playoffs and a title since the day this team was born, and yes, a win tonight would send the Panthers into the title game next Saturday.

All that and more is at stake tonight when the Panthers open the Southern Indoor Football League playoffs at 7:30 at the Albany Civic Center.

But there's also that beads thing.

"I'll never forget the beads,'' said Panther receiver Clenton Rafe. "They were wearing beads and dancing.''

That's the lasting memory the Panthers have of the Swashbucklers, who not only handed them their first loss of the season on May 22, but literally danced in their face that night.

"After the game they were talking a lot of smack,'' Rafe said. "They were wearing Mardi Gras beads around their necks and dancing on the field. And they just kept jawing.''

It's an image that stayed with the Panthers, who couldn't believe it when the Swashbucklers came out after halftime wearing the beads. It was an in-your-face statement that gives tonight's playoff game a little extra Cajun spice.

"I wanted these guys, wanted to play them again,'' Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. "We were losing 31-15 at halftime, and we were on the field stretching to get ready for the second half when they came onto the field wearing Mardi Gras beads. They came out there and they started dancing and started trash talking. They were doing that at halftime."

"Then after the game they were dancing and celebrating as if they had just won a championship,'' Davis said. "We left the field, and yes, I would say we were angry.''

Davis said he and his team felt frustration more than anger. Who could blame them? That was the night Albany had to play without a quarterback -- literally with no QB on the team.

Starter Cecil Lester was out with a broken ankle, and the Panthers had just signed former South Georgia Wildcats quarterback Andrico Hines, who had stepped in a week earlier for backup Jeff Aaron to lead the Panthers to a 43-35 victory against Louisiana at Albany to give the Panthers a 5-0 start.

The Panthers were so disappointed in Aaron's first start they released him after that game. The idea was to have Hines start the game in Louisiana and then he would become the backup when Lester returned a week later.

Hines, who lives in Atlanta, was supposed to fly out Saturday morning and join the team before the game. He never showed up. Davis scrambled and asked receiver Antwontis Cutts, who had played some quarterback at Americus-Sumter High, if he could play that night. Cutts had his moments but the Panthers, who had been winning with ease, had a long night full of turnovers and three-and-outs. The defense spent most of the night on the field, and they lost 67-43, ending what had been a perfect season.

"We were in a predicament we couldn't control,'' Davis said. "It was the first time we were in a game where we couldn't control the game. After the game, it was frustrating (to watch them celebrating). Even though we didn't have a quarterback, we felt we still should have won the game.''

The loss, the dancing and the beads left more than a bad taste in the mouths of the Panthers.

"After that game I told our players that for the rest of the season we are going to play with an edge,'' Davis said. "I told them we are going to play with a chip on our shoulder. They did. Even in the games we lost, we lost because we made too many mistakes, not because of the effort.''

Lester returned the week after the loss in Louisiana, and the Panthers beat Greenville, 71-6.

"We played Greenville the next week,'' said Davis, making his point without saying anything else.

The Panthers (8-3) would like nothing more than a one-sided win tonight. They're bringing in former Georgia quarterback D. J. Shockley, who will pose for pictures and sign autographs before the game. The Panthers hope they draw the biggest crowd of the year to the Civic Center, where they have never lost. They're 6-0 at home, and if they win tonight they'll be at home next Saturday for the title game against Columbus, which beat Lafayette, 61-26, on Thursday night to advance to the title game.

The Panthers took two of three games from Columbus, but lost the season finale in Columbus 38-21, two weeks ago. If the Panthers win tonight, they won't have time to celebrate with beads.

Lester missed both games against Louisiana, but the Swashbucklers had to rely on backups in the first meeting against Albany, because the Panthers knocked out Louisiana's starting quarterback and the backup quarterback that night, and the Swashbucklers had to send a receiver in to play quarterback.

"The two starting quarterbacks have never played against each other,'' Davis said.

Lester is coming off his worst game of the year. He played only three quarters in the Panthers' season finale 38-21 loss to Columbus, but Davis said he isn't worried about his quarterback.

"Cecil is the kind of player who will bounce back,'' Davis said. "I'm glad that game is out of the way.''

Lester feels the same way, and he's glad to get a chance to play the Swashbucklers.

"It was frustrating when I was (out with the ankle injury), because I didn't get to play (against Louisiana),'' Lester said. "It was hard to be on the bench watching the game when they beat us. But our goal all year has been to win a championship. We're here now, and we're still hungry. We know what's at stake (tonight).''

Louisiana (5-6) has used two quarterbacks this season. Fredd Harrison took over for Alvin Bartie, who started the season at QB. Harrison made his first start against Albany, and completed 21 of 41 passes for 332 yards and six touchdowns in the win against the Panthers. He has been starting since, and has thrown for 908 yards and 20 touchdowns in five games.

Lester's stats are misleading, because he was never credited for his 300 yards and six touchdowns in the 71-6 victory against Greenville, because there was not a statistician at the game. He is officially listed with 1,828 yards and 40 touchdowns in eight games, a discrepancy that had Davis upset earlier this week when Columbus' Chris McCoy was named as the SIFL's first team quarterback, and Lester was put on the second team.

Davis was also baffled by some of the other selections and couldn't understand why kicker Juan Bongarra and defensive back Levance Richmond were left off both teams, saying there isn't a better kicker or defensive back in the league than those two.

The Panthers, a close-kit bunch that has felt the league hasn't given the new franchise much respect all season, felt slighted by the league's All-SIFL teams, and that slight should just add to the edge Davis wants for this game. As if he needed it.

And then there's always the beads, Mardi Gras beads, at that.