Former Americus-Sumter star and Panthers receiver Antwon Cutts catches a pitch from a teammate during a game earlier this season against the Lions, who are the only team that has beaten Albany this season.
COLUMBUS — Panthers wide receiver Antwone Savage watched the ball leave Trey Crum’s foot.
He watched it float through the air at the Columbus Civic Center on a Sunday afternoon just over a month ago, splitting both the uprights and Albany’s 10-game winning streak.
And Savage, the team’s leading receiver and a former Westover star, knew exactly what the Panthers would do next.
“We sucked it up, came home and got ready for next week,” Savage said.
And the Panthers haven’t lost since.
Albany (9-1) will take its PIFL-best record and a three-game winning streak to Columbus (5-5) tonight, and the Panthers will be looking for revenge after that 58-56 loss May 6.
A win will also give the Panthers home-field advantage throughout the PIFL playoffs.
“You always want to go out and prove to anyone that beat you that you can beat them,” said Savage, who has caught 43 passes for 18 TDs and 664 yards. “And that’s pretty much what’s going on with us — everybody is trying to beat us because we are the league champs.”
The last time the Panthers won a game in Columbus was last June when they put together a second-half comeback to knock off the Lions in the league’s Eastern Conference championship game en route to their first league championship.
The Panthers have emerged as the PIFL’s marquee team again this year — but the Lions, who are young and in the middle of a rebuilding season, have a knack for defending their home field.
The last two games Albany has lost — June 4 of last season and May 6 of this season — were in the Columbus Civic Center, a venue that Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester said is, “a very tough place to play. The crowd heckles you, and they know when to get loud. It’s just a tough place to play, but I love it.”
Panthers receiver and former Americus-Sumter star Antwon Cutts added: “When you play over there, it comes down to which team makes the fewest mistakes. We have a great game plan, and if we execute we should win.”
Columbus hasn’t been at home since beating the Panthers on May 6 and has lost two road games in a row to Richmond and Louisiana. The Lions are guaranteed a playoff spot in the PIFL’s four-team postseason, but a loss tonight could drop them to the No. 4 seed and set up a first-round playoff game between the No. 1 seed Panthers and Columbus.
Cutts didn’t blink when asked how it would feel to open up the playoffs with the only team that the Panthers have lost to this season.
“Whatever it takes to get a championship,” he said. “Whoever is in our way, we are going to knock them off.”
A victory or an unlikely loss by Richmond to the last-place Nighthawks will give the Panthers the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, where they will play either Columbus or the Louisiana Swashbucklers.
“Either one is going to be tough,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “Louisiana played us tough two of the three games this year. Columbus is always tough, and right now we know it is going to be one of those two teams.”
Lester, who didn’t play May 6 against the Lions because of an injured left knee but returned to the lineup the following week and has led the Panthers to three wins in a row, isn’t even thinking about the playoffs yet.
“It doesn’t matter who we play,” Lester said. “We aren’t worried about playoffs right now. We are just looking to take care of our business on the field (tonight) against Columbus.”