Albany Panthers Quarterback Cecil Lester, left, celebrates with his team after winning the inaugural PIFL Championship game Saturday night at the Albany Civic Center.
ALBANY — Different season.
That’s what it boils down to for the champion Albany Panthers — make that the two-time defending champion Albany Panthers — after the they repeated their 2011 title feat Saturday night at the Albany Civic Center by beating the Richmond Raiders, 60-56, in a game that had a little bit of everything.
Bad blood. Drama. Heroics. And, of course, a wild celebration at the center of the Civic Center field for anyone and everyone affiliated with the team.
“This just means so much. I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels right now to stand here and know we did it again,” said Panthers owner Rod Chappell, who bought the team three years ago and brought it to Albany not knowing what to expect. “It was a tough season. We had injuries. But we fought through it. And to be champs again, I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys, my management staff ... everyone. We fought, and we fought and we fought. And this is the pay off.”
Former ASU wideout Clenton Rafe started the festivities after the clock ticked to zero and the stage was rolled out by holding up two fingers and dancing with his teammates as they donned T-shirts that read “PIFL Cup Champs”.
“That’s TWO!” yelled out Rafe, who finished with six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. “I’m gonna keep holding them up — cause we did it again!”
Yes you did.
Albany won the Southern Indoor Football League title last season, then the SIFL folded, leaving several of the teams in the league to go their own way.
Just like that, the Professional Indoor Football was born.
And one year later, Albany is champs of that, too.
“It feels good. Matter of fact, great,” said former Westover star and Panthers leading receiver Antwone Savage, who had a monster game — and it was his final one, after declaring this week he was retiring after this season following nearly a decade playing arena football. “There’s no better way to go out. No better way. I’m satisfied (with all I’ve done).”
He should be.
Savage finished with six catches for 78 yards and three scores, including the go-ahead TD late in the fourth quarter when the game was tied and the tension was thick. Cecil Lester, the Panthers’ undefeated starter who didn’t begin the game under center due to a knee injury but came on in the second half and replaced backup Darnell Kennedy, found Savage from 13 yards out with 8:28 remaining to break a 43-43 tie. The pass was a beauty, lofted over the Richmond defense’s heads and outstretched hands — right into Savage’s bread basket.
“That one felt nice, man. Real nice,” said Lester, who hasn’t played in nearly a month but certainly played the role of hero Saturday night when he relieved a winded Kennedy in the second half and led Albany back to the Promised Land.
Then he joked: “I had almost forgot what it felt like to throw a TD, but there was Savage — just like he always is.”
The score put Albany ahead, 50-43, and the Panthers never looked back — thanks in large part to the team’s biggest offseason acquisition, defensive back Damian Daniels.
Daniels, a four-time defensive player of the year who will no doubt be the favorite to win his fifth when postseason awards are handed out next week, picked off a screaming, line-drive pass from Richmond QB James Steadman as the Raiders were driving and on the verge of tying the game.
Daniels, who everyone around arena football knows simply as “Nighthawk,” dove for the ball, cradled it and rolled twice before popping to show it off, holding it high in the air as if to say, “Look what I found!”
The 6,194 fans in attendance at the Albany Civic Center lost control and the roars were deafening. Everyone knew just how big Daniels’ play was.
“Play of the game,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “That was the turning point right there. That’s what we signed him for, and he’s been doing it all year. He started picking off passes in the first game of the season, and he ended it with another one. A big one.”
Ironically, Albany finished the season the same way it started it: a win, at home, against the Raiders. Way back on March 17, Albany kicked off its title defense with a 40-28 whipping of Richmond at the Civic Center.
Saturday’s game was quite a bit different in how it played out, but the result was not.
“I feel blessed,” Davis said. “This group of guys, they’re special. And I just feel blessed to have had the opportunity to coach them and win another championship.”
But would it be his last in the Panther purple and black? There were reports this week that Davis was hanging it up after this game — win or lose — and heading back to Texas to spend more time with his family and pursue a new path.
But Chappell shot down that report after the game, even if Davis wouldn’t commit one way or another.
“We’re champs again, and he’s coming back,” Chappell told The Herald as his players celebrated wildly around him on stage while being presented the first-ever PIFL Cup. “I already talked to him.”
And that’s good news for Albany, because they plan on being back. Even if Savage, Lester, Rafe, defensive lineman Tito Hannah and fullback Derrick Wimbush likely won’t be. In addition to Savage — who is definitely retiring — the rest of the group all said this week they were likely done.
But ... man ... what a way to go out.
Albany felt good winning its second straight title, but even better doing it against Richmond — a team it’s quickly developing a nasty rivalry with. The two teams had to be separated in pregame warmups after Raiders wideout Jason Lovett began jawing at the Panthers players as they ran out onto the field.
The Panthers just laughed.
They did their talking on the field.
Albany never trailed in this one, jumping out to a 15-6 lead, then a 29-16 lead and eventually going to halftime ahead, 36-30, after a late Raiders flurry that cut the margin to six after a 40-yard field goal before intermission by T.C. Stevens.
The drama got taken up a notch at the start of the third quarter when Raiders QB Antwon Young marched Richmond down the field to the Panthers’ 10-yard line and called a swing pass to fullback Jordan Pavilson, who looked like he might score and put Albany in the hole for the first time all night. But Pavilson was rocked by a host of Panthers defenders as he charged toward the goal line, jarring the ball loose. Former Americus-Sumter star Antwon Cutts picked it up and ran it back 42 yards to the house, putting the Panthers ahead again by two scores, 43-30. Young got crossed up on the play — imagine a defender getting his ankles broken on the basketball court — and went down in a heap trying to make the tackle. Then he stormed to the sideline in frustration.
It showed on the very next series — a series that likely cost Richmond a real shot at the title and put Albany in the driver’s seat.
After the Albany defense jumped offsides, a charging Anton Cesar went after Young as the refs blew the whistle. Cesar pulled up, but Young lost his cool as the big Panthers defensive lineman came in his direction. As a result, Young threw the ball directly in Cesar’s facemask, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty — and eventually the boot from the game.
James Steadman replaced Young, one of the league’s top QBs, and played well.
But it wasn’t enough.
The Raiders lost their leader, their cool and arguably the PIFL Championship on that play.
Steadman finished with two TDs — both rushing — but it was clear from his very first snap that he was no Antwon Young.
Or Cecil Lester. Or Darnell Kennedy, both of whom played lights out in a cooperative effort.
Kennedy, who played the first two quarters and part of the third before being replaced by Lester, finished with 164 yards passing and four TDs — two to Savage, one to Cutts and one to Rafe. Lester, who finished with 84 yards passing and two TDs, than came on and put the nail in the coffin, throwing the go-ahead to Savage and the game-sealer to Cutts with 3:36 left in the fourth quarter.
Lester said he was Kennedy’s biggest cheerleader on the sideline as the Panthers’ backup assumed early control of the game — and vice versa when Kennedy came out in the third quarter.
“That’s just us. We’re a team. There’s no jealousy. There’s no bickering. There’s none of that,” Lester said of sharing the spotlight with Kennedy on Saturday. “We support each other 100 percent. All the way. He played great, and I came in and did my thing late. We won it as a team. That’s who we are.”
Kennedy couldn’t agree more.
“I got winded in the third quarter, so I understood the decision (by coach Davis) to take me out. It was the right one,” said the former South Georgia Wildcats QB, who had never won a ring playing arena ball before Saturday. “And then Cecil came in and, I mean, he was Cecil. He’s our leader. This is his team. I’ve always said that. There wasn’t a better way for this to end than for him to be on the field. He’s our quarterback.”
But Kennedy and Lester couldn’t do it alone.
Kicker Ryan Gates was perfect on PATs, had one uno and kicked the game-clinching field goal from 15 yards out with less than a minute to go.
Ryan Babb led the team with six tackles, followed by five from Corey Rue. And Wimbush ran hard all night, keeping the Raiders’ defense off balance.
Cutts, however, was the man Saturday.
He was not only the team’s leading receiver — six catches, 116 yards and two scores — but he provided the most electric moment of the game when he returned a kickoff early in the second quarter 50 yards to kill the momentum of a Raiders score that had pulled them to within a touchdown. Stevens, rather than try an uno on the ensuing kickoff, drilled a line drive right into Cutts’ arms — and he made the Raiders pay.
Cutts weaved in and out of traffic — breaking a few more Richmond ankles — and wasn’t touched until the 1-yard line when he dove in for the score.
“It was exciting, wasn’t it?” Lester said, referring to the big picture — Cutts’ return, Kennedy’s performance, the defense and even his own late heroics. “What a way to win. It feels good. We’re champs again. What more can you ask for?”
NOTES: Young finished the game with three TDs and 165 yards passing on 11-for-16 for the Raiders, while Steadman had two TDs and 101 yards passing on 7-for-10. Steadman also had a pair of rushing TDs.
Richmond’s top receiver was Herb Jones, who caught four TDs — two from each quarterback. Lovett finished with a touchdown and a team-high 94 yards on seven receptions.