AMERICUS -- Cairo's faithful fans drove 130 miles to get to Americus on a frigid Friday, and no one seemed to mind.
"We'll drive all the way to Atlanta to see our football team,'' said Tim Harrell, who made the drive along with hundreds of Cairo fans. "That's the way it is in Cairo.''
It sure is. And the Syrupmakers may just drive all the way to the Class AAA state title. That's how good they looked Friday in a first-place showdown with Americus-Sumter, which picked a bad night to fumble the football.
Then again, no one ever seems to have a good night against the Syrupmakers.
"We won't see a better team in the playoffs,'' said Americus-Sumter coach Michael Pollock, whose Panthers fell, 42-7. "We might see a team that's as good, but we won't see a better one.''
It's tough to argue.
Cairo is now 10-0 overall and 6-0 in region play after capturing the 1-AAA title Friday. The Syrupmakers are ranked No. 3 in the state, but that might be an understatement. They have given up only 27 points all year, and that counts the seven the Panthers scored Friday.
"With their defense giving up only 20 points all year, I feel us scoring seven was an accomplishment,'' Pollock said.
Defense is Cairo's calling card. Everyone feels that way after playing the Syrupmakers, who won it all in 2008 and might be good enough to do it again.
"The biggest thing for us is our defense,'' Cairo coach Tom Fallow said. "I don't know (where this team ranks with us). Everybody wants to compare teams. That 2008 team went undefeated, and then we had to come back last year after losing a lot of seniors off that team. But we went (to the third round of the playoffs last year) and we brought back a lot from that team. We've had a good year. It's is a good feeling going into the playoffs.''
Pollock's kids played Cairo tough, but they fumbled the ball -- count 'em -- nine times. They lost two fumbles, had an interception returned inside the 10, and gave the ball over on downs twice on punts -- once on a failed fake and once on a fumble by the punter.
"That's why they call special teams special, because they are special. And they were special,'' said Americus-Sumter's Thomas Haugabook, one of two A-S quarterbacks to get knocked out of the game.
Americus lost starter Malik Thomas in the first half when he left the game with a migraine headache and lost Haugabook with about seven minutes left in the third quarter with an ankle injury. Freshman Jonathon Thomas had to finish the game under center.
Pollock expects both Thomas and Haugabook to be back next week when Americus-Sumter (6-4 and 5-1 in the region) is at home in the first round of the playoffs, thanks to being the runner-up in the region
"I told the team we're 0-0, (at this point)'' Pollock said afterward. "We had a 1-3 start and I told them we were 0-0 before the region started, and we won five in a row. Now we're starting the playoffs and I told them we can win five in a row.''
They won some respect on Friday.
"They hit hard and play hard,'' Cairo quarterback Brandon McCrary said. "I think they will do all right in the playoffs.''
McCrary completed 5-of-9 passes for 97 yards in the first half, including an 11-yard TD pass to Terrell Bryant that lifted Cairo to a 20-0 lead with 6:11 left in the half. The Syrupmakers turned a scoreless first quarter into a rout after Americus-Sumter fumbled a punt that set up Cairo's first TD.
Tyran Goober watched a punt sail over his head, then ran the ball down, but fumbled it away at the Panthers' three yard line. Laquintin Williams scored the first of his three rushing touchdowns on a 3-yard run to give Cairo a 7-0 lead with 11:55 left in the half -- and the Syrupmakers just kept coming.
"He's just trying to make a play there,'' Pollock said of Goober.
Williams scored on a 2-yard run with 8:13 left to complete a short 35-yard drive, then Americus fumbled the ball away at its own 11 on the next drive and on third and 10, McCrary hit Bryant and it was 20-0.
Haugabook brought the Panthers back with a 56-yard run to the Cairo 26, and then ran twice to get the ball to the 15, before Kedrick Jones scored on a 15-yard run. It was 20-7 with 5:08 left in the half, and Pollock still felt good about his team's chances.
"I felt when we were down 20-7 that if we scored again and made it 20-14 before halftime, that we still had a chance,'' he said.
But after Goober intercepted a pass at the Panthers' three yard line, Cairo held and Americus had to punt the ball back from its four yard line. Cairo ripped off a 40-yard drive in the final minutes and McCrary scored on a 1-yard run with 45 seconds left to make it 27-7.
"It just kind of snowballed against us,'' Pollock said of the turnovers and the mistakes. "Against a good team, you can't make mistakes. They will make you look bad.''
The Panthers can't wait to put this one behind them.
"We'll be all right next week in the playoffs,'' said Jones, who finished with 33 yards on seven carries. "I think we'll play harder next week''
"We will come back next week with a chip on our shoulder,'' he said. "We'll be right back in the weight room on Monday, getting ready for next week. If we would have executed and not fumbled the ball we would have won (this game).''
That's the attitude Pollock wants. His team has made a long journey this year, and he knew Cairo was going to be waiting at the end of the region. He also knew before Friday's game that his team would be in the playoffs next week.
"We just have to win five in a row again,'' he said.