Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ALBANY -- Squashed.

Or better yet, Swashed.

Pick an ugly word for an ugly ending and slap it on the Albany Panthers, a team that started the franchise back in January with little more than an idea then had a meteoric rise to become the team to beat in the SIFL.

Now it's over. It ended on a hot night in Georgia when the Panthers couldn't have been colder inside the 10 yard line. It ended after a first half filled with frustration and a frantic fourth quarter that was brimming in hope.

Just like this franchise in the bare-bones beginning.

It ended with a comeback that didn't come far enough for a team that came farther than anyone expected. It ended in tears and ended with grown men who couldn't find the words to say just how much this 41-35 loss to the Louisiana Swashbucklers in the Southern Indoor Football League playoffs hurt.

"It hurts. It hurts like hell,'' said a teary-eyed Panthers coach Lucious Davis, who stopped and started more than once trying to explain just how hard this loss hit him.

They came back all night and staged two furious drives in the final seconds only to be turned away twice by a Swashbucklers team that turned everything sour. Trailing 41-20 after three quarters, Albany scored twice and got some extra kicking points from Juan Bongarra to close to 41-35, and drove to inside the 10 with 45 seconds left when Sammy Knight picked off his third pass of the night to all but end Albany's season.

Still, they came back one last time, driving to the Louisiana 19 in the final minute, before quarterback Cecil Lester, the MVP of the league, scrambled on the final play of the game, and was stopped at the 8 as time and the season expired.

"Why? Why,'' asked Davis afterward. "We didn't need to run there. We weren't going to score on a run. We needed a pass. I know he was trying to make a big play and win the game, but we have to pass there.''

Lester wasn't around to comment afterward. He had an emotional ride all season and all night. He finished with 267 yards and four TDs, but he threw three interceptions. Knight returned the first one for a TD and Damien Harrison returned the second for a touchdown. Those two picks represented more points than Albany could muster in the first half as the Panthers trailed 20-6 at halftime in an arena league where points come in avalanches.

"It hurts. It was all right there for us, and we couldn't get it done,'' said receiver Clenton Rafe, who made seven catches in the first half and then sat out the second half after re-injuring his knee.

"It's a pretty bad feeling right now,'' he said. "It was right there for the taking and we couldn't get it done.''

They trailed 20-6 at halftime and were down 41-20 after three quarters before the furious dramatic fourth. The comeback really started when Ryan Davis recovered a fumble at the Louisiana 8 yard line with 12:27 left. The Panthers were still down, 41-20, but Davis recovered more than a fumble on the play.

He seemed to recover the Panthers themselves, who had spent most of the night finding ways not to score.

But not in the frantic fourth quarter. Davis pulled out his bag of tricks on the first play from scrimmage, and Lester connected with Marcus Lindsey, a 365-pound offensive lineman, who was wide open for the 8-yard TD catch and run (well, catch and rumble).

"Scoring that touchdown was a dream come true for me,'' Lindsey said. "I've never scored one in my life. But it's just null and void. Losing this game just makes everything feel bad right now.''

Demetrie McCray, one of the top defensive backs in this league, stopped Louisiana's next drive by picking off a pass at the Swashbucklers' 20 and returning it to the 4. Lester scored on the next play, slipping through a hole on the left side and into the end zone.

Bongarra's PAT made it 41-34, and he followed that kick with his second uno of the night, and suddenly the Panthers were only six points away, trailing 41-35 with 8:38 left in the game.

They caught a break when Louisiana kicker Blake Becegeay missed a 42-yard field goal attempt with 3:53 left, and Albany took over for one last drive.

The Panthers would have loved to have had one of many of the first half scoring opportunities back. They were turned away four times inside Louisiana's 15 yard line, including twice on drives that started at the 6, in the first half as they seemed to invent new ways to squander opportunities with each drive.

"Wasted possessions, just wasted possessions,'' Davis said. "You're not going to beat anybody playing like that. You couldn't beat Westover High playing like that. We were inside the 10 four times and came away with zero.''

The Panthers (8-4) wanted this one for all the right reasons, including a This was a revenge game from a 63-47 loss in Lake Charles on May 22 when the Panthers were forced to play without a quarterback because Lester was injured and backup Andrico Hines never showed up at the game.

Antwontis Cutts, a receiver, played QB that night, and the Albany players, who were already frustrated by the loss and the dilemma Hines put them in, were furious when the Louisiana players (6-6) danced on the field wearing Mardi Gras beads at halftime and after the game.

That loss ended Albany's perfect 5-0 start, and this playoff game was supposed to be about payback and redemption for Albany. Instead it was the end of a season.

It also ended their perfect record in Albany, where they were 6-0 this season.

"We fought right to the very end,'' said Davis, the SIFL's coach of the year. "But it just hurts because we didn't get done what we wanted to get done. We just didn't get it done.''