Injured at the time, Panthers QB Cecil Lester was pained having to watch his team play Columbus last month — a game that resulted in Albany’s only loss of the season so far. Lester’s now healthy and will play in Saturday’s rematch. (email@example.com)
WHO: Albany Panthers (9-1) at Columbus Lions (5-5).
WHAT: Rubber match between Georgia rivals.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
ALBANY — Cecil Lester, hobbled by a hyper-extended left knee, could only watch from afar as the Panthers’ perfect season drifted away.
Albany’s leader and star quarterback sat on the sidelines May 6 because of the injury and watched as the Lions hit a last-second field goal to hand the Panthers (9-1) their only loss of the season.
And the only thing that hurt Lester more than the knee was not being able to do anything about the loss.
“It was difficult. I wanted to play,” Lester said at Wednesday’s practice. “I’m a competitor and a player, so I listened, watched and communicated with the rest of the guys about what was going on. I was actually like a second coach on the field even though I wasn’t playing.”
Now Lester is back in the lineup, and the Panthers (9-1) are headed back to Columbus (5-5) on Saturday looking to avenge that 58-56 defeat.
Prior to leading warm-ups before Wednesday’s practice in the Civic Center, the veteran quarterback talked about leading his Panthers into one of the most hostile arenas in the PIFL.
“It’s a very tough place to play,” Lester said about the Columbus Civic Center, where he led the Panthers to an Eastern Conference championship in the semifinals of last year’s playoffs. “The crowd heckles you, and they know when to get loud. It’s just a tough place to play, but I love it.”
And the Panthers, who have already locked up home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs and need to win just one of their final two games to secure the No. 1 seed and home-field throughout, love when Lester is there to quiet the crowd.
“It’s a comfort zone when you have a guy (at quarterback) who has been here for three years,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “He knows what I want and what I am looking for, so it’s really comfortable having him in there.”
The Panthers are 9-0 with Lester at quarterback this season, and he has racked up 2,048 yards, 44 touchdowns and just nine interceptions — stats that are second in the league only to Saturday’s counterpart: Columbus quarterback Randy Hippeard, who has tallied 63 TDs, 13 INTs and 2,801 yards passing this year.
Lester, who was recently named the PIFL’s offensive player of the week after throwing a season-high eight touchdowns in Saturday’s 74-64 win against Knoxville, was replaced May 6 by former South Georgia Wildcats quarterback Darnell Kennedy. Kennedy was released earlier in the season by the AFL’s Georgia Force and had less than a week to prepare, but Albany would’ve won had Columbus not hit a 54-yard field goal as time expired.
The Panthers, who beat Columbus 57-40 in the first meeting back on April 21, aren’t planning on letting Saturday’s game come down to the final seconds.
“We have our veteran quarterback back this week, so things will be real smooth. It’s our third year being together as a receiving corps and quarterback, so we have that connection,” Panthers receiver and former Americus-Sumter star Antwon Cutts said. “This time we want to jump on them early so it can’t come down to a game-winning field goal.”