Your (Champion?) Albany Panthers

Photo by John Millikan

Photo by John Millikan

ALBANY -- The Panthers broke Friday's post-practice huddle the same way they have ended practice sessions for most of the season.

"1 ... 2 ... 3 ... champions."

The phrase echoed throughout the empty Albany Civic Center -- a venue that will be anything but quiet as the Panthers host the Louisiana Swashbucklers in tonight's SIFL Championship game.

And that confidence -- which has helped the Panthers win their first two playoff games against Erie and Columbus and has given them a champion's mentality -- was sky high Friday as they prepared for the franchise's first title game.

"(Being champions) is the ultimate goal, and we have to believe in it," Panthers coach Lucious Davis said after the team's walk-through. "That's the one thing that we have been chanting. We just have to play like it, and if we play like it we will be OK."

The Swashbucklers, who defeated Houston in Monday's semifinal, enter the contest with all kinds of confidence, too.

It will be the fifth consecutive championship game for Louisiana, which won 2007 and 2008 titles in the now-disbanded Intense Football League.

The team also won the inaugural SIFL Championship in 2009 and was the league runner-up last year to Columbus.

So the Swashbucklers know a little bit about playing on the big stage.

"If I'm them and I play on their team, I have confidence coming in here and playing us," Davis said. "They came in here last year and beat us, so I expect them to be confident. I know they are going to be prepared, because (Darnell) Lee is a good coach."

The Swashbucklers (10-4) defeated Albany (12-2) in last season's semifinal game, but the Panthers got even in this year's season opener with a 30-27 come-from-behind victory. During a phone interview Thursday with The Herald, Lee made it clear that those matchups mean little as the teams get set to clash in tonight's title bout.

"With them having beaten Columbus and with us having beaten Houston, I think it's the perfect matchup for a championship game," said Lee, who directed his team to a Western Conference championship. "Going in and playing a top-caliber team like Albany is definitely going to be something that we're going to take very seriously.

"It is ironic, us having to go back there. We went back early this season, and as coach Lucious said ... he thought that first game of the season was perfect redemption for them, so if that's how he feels, then I guess we're on that clean slate right now. So it's going to be just two teams going at it."

The Panthers, who were crowned Eastern Conference champs with their win last week against Columbus, and the Swashbucklers entered the postseason with two of the highest-scoring offenses in the league -- Louisiana fifth with 59 points per game, and Albany sixth with 52.8 points per game. While Swashbuckler quarterback Ben McLaughlin directed his team during each regular-season game, it will be WR/DB-turned-quarterback Sammy Knight who will be under center in the title game after engineering a beatdown of previously undefeated Houston in the semifinals while running the "Wildcat" offense.

Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester, meanwhile, has been there since the beginning, coming off the bench in the season opener to lead Albany to that three-point win. Lester threw 64 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions during the regular season and has kept that pace up throughout the postseason.

"All (Cecil) has to do is just keep doing what he has been doing, go through his reads and make the right throws," Davis said. "He just has to put the ball in his receivers' hands and let them make the plays for him."

Lester said he is focused on capitalizing on Louisiana's mistakes, minimizing his own errors and executing plays.

"I am focused," Lester said Friday. "Obviously, I have to step up for us. I have to step up big. There are only three games in the playoffs. We already accomplished two wins, so we have to finish the season strong."

Lester will face a Swashbucklers defense that forced four turnovers last week against Houston, but it's Albany's defense that has been making offenses pay all year. The Panthers entered the playoffs with the third-best defense in the league (209.3 yards allowed per game), while the Swashbucklers have the second-best offense (277.5 yards per game). Something will have to give tonight, and Davis said he hopes it's Louisiana's offense.

"I have been saying all year long that we have been riding our defense all the way," Davis said. "They came up big for us in both playoff games and really all season. So I don't see why anything should change."

Defensive back Demetrie McCray, a big component of Albany's defense, spoke about the significance of tonight's game.

"To me personally, this would be one of the greatest accomplishments in my life, simply because I have never reached this point in my life before," said McCray, who played for Albany State. "I have been out in the city all week, and I have just been hearing people saying how much they are behind us and how big it would be if we brought a championship to Albany."

Davis, who admitted to not getting much sleep this week due to nerves and the task of watching game film, also said a win tonight would mean a lot to him on a personal level.

"Every time I think about it, my stomach turns," he said. "I don't want to think about it, but it would mean everything to me. I have had people tell me since I started coaching that I'm not a good coach or I don't know what I'm doing or I can't win. You hear the rumors, and to win this game would put a stamp on it for me."