Panthers QB Cecil Lester eludes the pressure from the Swashbucklers’ defense late in the first half to find WR and former Westover star Antwone Savage for a TD that gave Albany the lead heading into halftime. The Panthers never relented en route to a 3-0 start. (email@example.com)
ALBANY — Clenton Rafe jumped into the crowd and started high-fiving as many fans as he could.
And just like that, the party was on.
The touchdown celebration earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty from the officials, but the message it sent was clear — the Albany Civic Center was ready to party.
Saturday night’s game turned into quite the celebration for the Panthers, who jumped ahead by 24 points shortly after Rafe’s touchdown and rolled to a 52-38 win against the Louisiana Swashbucklers, beating them for the second straight week.
“We were on the sideline, and we were like, ‘We gotta do something to get the crowd into it and get our guys fired up,’ ” said Rafe, an Albany State grad. “I said, ‘Let’s just go in the stands. Let’s shake hands with everybody.’ ”
The Panthers held onto their label as the top team in the PIFL with their fourth win in a row against Louisiana (1-2), which Albany edged last week on a last-second touchdown. It was also a rematch of last year’s SIFL Championship game, which the Panthers won in the Civic Center, 69-48.
Albany remains the lone undefeated team in the league and will take its 3-0 record into next week’s bye.
“This is the best we have looked so far,” Albany head coach Lucious Davis said. “There is still a lot of room for improvement. We can get a whole lot better, so we just need to keep on plugging.”
Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester had his best game of the season, connecting on 17-of-33 passes for 218 yards and five touchdowns. His favorite target was former Westover star Antwone Savage, who hauled in nine catches for three touchdowns and 130 yards.
“It was a pretty good night for us,” said Savage, who missed last week’s game because he was taking the state’s teacher certification test. “(Lester) called me and told me he couldn’t wait for me to come back, and I couldn’t wait to get back out here. I just wanted to make the most of all my catches (Saturday night).”
Savage wasn’t the only Panther making the most of his opportunities in front of a large crowd of 5,312.
Rafe caught five passes for 67 yards and a TD, former Americus-Sumter star Antwon Cutts caught two passes for 22 yards and a TD, running back Derrick Wimbush got his first rushing touchdown of the season and placekicker Geoff Boyer was 6-for-6 on extra points and 3-for-4 on field goals.
“We are 3-0 right now, and everybody is starting to come together as a team, which is all we need,” Savage said. “If we jell at the right time, we are liable to take off. Nobody will be able to stop us.”
Albany never trailed, but Louisiana kept the Panthers’ lead to single digits — that is, until Rafe caught his touchdown with 1:45 left in the third quarter to give Albany a 41-25 lead. Rafe, who joined the team just over a week ago, darted straight for the sidelines and jumped over the wall and into stands. He was followed by a handful of teammates, who proceeded to go nearly 10 rows up into the crowd handing out high-fives.
“We felt like we were kind of tight, and that loosened everybody up, even the fans,” Savage said.
Davis was pleased with his players’ enthusiasm — but not so much with the celebration.
“I hated it,” he said. “I just told them last week not to do that, so there will be some extra running (in practice). They said they wanted to get the fans involved, but it’s against league rules.”
Officials dished out several unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, giving the Swashbucklers great field position on Albany’s 10-yard line to start the next drive. On the first play of that drive, the Panthers then got hit with another penalty, which bumped the ball up to the 5-yard line.
However, defensive lineman Anton Ceaser recovered a fumble on the next play, and Lester hit Savage on a 41-yard TD pass seconds later to give the Panthers a 49-25 lead — their biggest of the game.
Quarterbacks Freddie Harrison and Sammy Knight split time under center for Louisiana, which was without starting quarterback Alvin Bartie, who suffered a concussion in last week’s game. Harrison was 10-for-20 with 134 yards and two TDs, and Knight was 4-for-8 with 47 yards and two TDs. Star running back Kendrick Perry, who entered the game as the league’s second-leading rusher, was held to seven yards on four carries.
The Swashbucklers just didn’t have enough firepower to match Albany, which started clicking on the first play of the game when Lester threw a short pass to Rafe, who nearly broke it for a touchdown.
“We came out on offense and tried to do a little better than we did last week,” Rafe said. “We did a short pass early to just get Cecil in a rhythm, and then we were off from there.”
Rafe’s trip into the crowd didn’t seem to hurt the team’s momentum either.
“We’ll pay for it on Monday though,” Rafe added.