Americus -- It was a whirlwind, a season full of concern and heart-stopping victories that no one saw coming.
"It's just flown by,'' said first-year Americus-Sumter coach Michael Pollock, who started the season with a team no one seemed to believe in. "When the season began, we were picked to finish either fifth or sixth in the region, right there at the bottom.''
Now the Panthers are right there at the top.
"We might have surprised the community and the people in the region, but we didn't surprise ourselves,'' he said. "We felt coming in if some things went our way and we worked hard and stayed healthy and did the little things that we could be a playoff team. Any time you feel that way -- and with a couple of breaks -- you might have a chance to play for a region title. And here we are.''
They Panthers have arrived -- in more ways than one.
They play fellow region unbeaten Cairo -- which is 9-0 overall and ranked No. 3 in Class AAA -- at home tonight for the Region 1-AAA title, and even though the Panthers will be underdogs against a Cairo team that might be the best AAA team in the state, they've already made believers out of everyone in Americus and the region.
"There's no pressure on us. Nobody expected us to be here,'' Pollock said. "And nobody expects us to win. If Las Vegas made odds on high school football games, we wouldn't be favored.''
Pollock can appreciate just how far his team has come. He began the season in the hospital after getting his appendix removed and wasn't there for opening night. He's been there the rest of the way, watching his Panthers turn a 1-3 start into a run to the playoffs.
They not only won all five of their region games to clinch no worse than second place, which guarantees home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but the Panthers won some nailbiters along the way and just got better and better.
"We talk about it in the weight room all the time,'' Pollock said. "We tell them it doesn't matter what you bench in April or May, it's what you do now. A lot of people want to maintain. You can't maintain. You have to get better.
"That's what this team has done. I've seen us get better and better each week. We've improved in all facets of the game. (The new coaching staff) had to make the make adjustments (as we got to know the kids).''
"From the beginning to where we are right now, this team has done as good of a job improving as any team I've ever been around,'' Pollock said.
Everything seemed to change Sept. 24, the night the Panthers opened region play against Worth County, which had knocked off state-ranked Fitzgerald and had already been ranked in the state's Top 10.
"When we beat Worth County, that's the game that let us know we could be good,'' Pollock said. "They were a pretty hot team, beating
Fitzgerald and everything. People were high on them. And being able to beat them (20-12) gave us a lot of confidence, and we beat them on a night we had five turnovers. We just got better and better after that.''
The Panthers (6-3 and 5-0 in the region) had some close games, beating Monroe, 14-8, with a last minute interception, and Crisp County, 31-28. Pollock said his team got a big lift from safety Thomas Haugabook, who stepped in at quarterback against Westover, Monroe and Worth to help nail down wins.
Tailback Kedrick Jones has had a monster season, gaining more than 900 yards. He's been especially tough down the stretch and has gained 186, 176 and 105 yards in his last three games. Jones also has run back three kickoffs for touchdowns.
"He's been very productive. Some guys don't get that many (kickoff returns for TDs) in a career,'' Pollock said.
The defense has been led by defensive tackles Pat Fields and Jonathan Battle, who is being offered scholarships from Louisville, Arkansas and Cincinnati and is being recruited by a long list of other majors schools, Pollock said. Safety Claude Deriso has made some big interceptions to lead the secondary.
The offensive line has been anchored by Joe Clayborn and Uneik Crumbley, who has had several offers and has interest from Alabama, Auburn and Florida.
It has been a team that has come together for all the right reasons, and a team that still carries a huge burden. Defensive coordinator George Dean suffered a concussion during a play in practice three weeks ago and has yet to rejoin the team. He is in Gainesville, Fla. this week seeing a specialist.
"It was just a freak accident,'' Pollock said. "He's getting better. We're holding down the fort until he gets back. We've been through a lot of adversity this year.''
And now they're headed to the playoffs, knowing they will be at home next week -- right after facing Cairo.
"No matter what happens, we're assured of a home playoff game,'' Pollock said. "We're playing the No. 3 team in the state and we'll have a good measuring stick of where we are going into the playoffs. There will be no doubt about that.
"I don't think you would play anyone in the playoffs any better than (Cairo). This should help us going into the playoffs, and we're going into the game with nothing to lose.''