ALBANY -- Maybe Americus-Sumter was looking ahead. Maybe they weren't.
Either way, the Panthers had their hands full Thursday with Westover, but managed to stay unbeaten in GHSA Region 1-AAA on the strength of two fourth-quarter touchdown runs by Thomas Haugabook for a 24-10 win against the Patriots.
Americus (6-3, 5-0 Region 1-AAA) won its fifth straight game and sets up a region championship game next week at home against unbeaten Cairo High. The Panthers haven't brought a region title back to Americus since 2002.
"I want everybody to be excited," Panthers said head coach Micheal Pollock, who has won more region games in his first year than the team did the previous three years in Class AAAA. "Don't be uptight. Don't be nervous."
Pollock may have been a little nervous Thursday at Hugh Mills after he saw a 10-0 halftime lead disappear in the third quarter. Westover's Kenneth Towns had a fumble on the first play of the second half bounce right into hands, which he returned 25 yards for a score to cut the Panthers' lead to 10-7 just 18 seconds into the third quarter.
"I don't know who made the tackle, but his helmet hit the ball and it popped up to me," Towns said. "Coach said all week (Americus) would be overlooking us, looking toward Cairo. We had the chance because they weren't paying attention to us."
After Westover's Danny Brown booted a 43-yard field goal with 1:04 left in the third to tie the game at 10-10, the Patriots definitely had Americus' full attention. Westover could have gotten more, but after Justin Taylor hit Towns' on a 21-yard pass to the Americus 10, the Panthers' defense forced two runs for negative yardage and an incompletion.
Then, Haugabook slammed the door shut in the fourth quarter. The senior quarterback busted quarterback draws for 39 and 15-yard scoring runs to cement the win and set up next Friday's Syrupmaker showdown.
"I wouldn't say our kids were overlooking (Westover)," Pollock said. "I'd say some of the people in the community were probably talking a lot about Cairo. What the community didn't realize -- and what I knew -- is we had six starters out."
Americus was also without defensive coordinator George Dean (sickness), who is "worth two or three starters at least," Pollock said.
For Westover, some of the sting from a 2-7 (1-4 Region 1-AAA) season could be lessened with a win next week against Monroe, which would give the Patriots the city championship.
"The loss hurts, but I think (the second-half comeback) says a lot about the direction of our program," Westover head coach Octavia Jones said. "When I first got the job, my first conversation with the team was we want to be city champions. We have that opportunity next week."
The Patriots were led on offense by Towns, who finished with four catches for 49 yards, and Stevie Bowens' 53 yards rushing. Americus got 103 yards rushing on 14 carries from Kedrick Jones, who scored the only first-half touchdown with a 54-yard jaunt. Haugabook finished with 88 yards on 15 carries, while also throwing for 48.
Adam Heath hit on a 35-yard field goal in the second quarter for Americus, while Tyran Goober's fourth-quarter interception set up Haugabook's second touchdown to ice the game.