Albany head coach Lucious Davis, left, gives instruction to Panthers backup QB Darnell Kennedy, who will likely start in Saturday’s first round of the PIFL playoffs in place of injured starter Cecil Lester, during Wednesday's practice with the first-team offense. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WHO: Columbus Lions (6-6) at Albany Panthers (10-2).
WHAT: First round of the PIFL playoffs.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Albany Civic Center.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
LIVE UPDATES: Log on to: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
TICKETS: $10 in advance; $15 on game day; available at Albany Civic Center Box Office or by calling (229) 317-7201.
IF WIN: Will play Richmond-Louisiana winner for PIFL Championship on June 30.
ALBANY — Cecil Lester sat in the second row at the Albany Civic Center on Wednesday with an ice pack on his left knee, unlikely to play in Saturday’s PIFL playoff opener against Columbus.
The Panthers’ star quarterback is doubtful for the game after re-injuring his MCL two weeks ago against the Lions, but is he worried about his team’s chances with backup QB Darnell Kennedy?
“I still feel like I would if I was playing: very confident,” Lester said.
Before Wednesday’s practice, Panthers coach Lucious Davis said that Kennedy “is the starter unless something else happens.”
Lester is still slowly trying to return after his latest injury June 9 in Columbus and even suited up for practice Tuesday, but he said Wednesday that his knee is just 80-85 percent and the team doctor recommended that he “not practice (Wednesday) and stay out for a little bit.”
Lester, who is third in the league in passing with 47 touchdowns and 2,195 yards, said his chances of playing in the final two games this season are up to Davis.
He also addressed his long-term future with the team, saying there is a “50-50” chance he will retire at the end of the year along with receiver and Westover grad Antwone Savage, who has already announced that this will be his last season.
Kennedy has started under center twice this year when Lester has had to sit out with his injured knee, and both times the Panthers (10-2) lost on last-second field goals — May 6 against Columbus and this past Saturday against Richmond.
“Kennedy is capable of winning,” Davis said. “He made a couple of mistakes both games, but it’s all because of a lack of playing time. He wasn’t playing a lot, so some mistakes we just had to live with. This will be the first time he will have consistent playing time going into a start.
“I think he will be a lot better.”
Kennedy has completed 29-of-51 (56.9 percent) of his passes for 12 TDs, 462 yards and just three interceptions. But because he is 0-2 as a starter this season, he still feels like he has something to prove to both his teammates and the Albany fans.
“I was in the locker room, and someone said, ‘When Cecil was playing we were blowing everybody out.’ When I am the one playing it’s always the nail biters,” Kennedy said with a smile. “Hopefully, Cecil will come back so we can blow everybody else out, but if not I will gladly take the reins.”
And his teammates will gladly be there to support him.
“I’ve got faith in him,” said Savage, who leads the team in receiving with 20 TDs and 896 yards. “Those two losses were away games. We played hard, and we just ended up losing at the last second. We are going to make sure this time they don’t get an opportunity to hit that field goal. We are going to put it away earlier or have the ball at the end of the game.”
BRANCH IN TOWN: Albany native and Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch has been surrounded by plenty of success as a member of the New England Patriots.
On Saturday, Panthers fans are hoping the former Monroe star brings some of that success to the Albany Civic Center, where Branch will be doing the opening coin toss before the playoff game between Columbus and Albany.
“I shot him a text and asked him if he wanted to do the coin flip, and he said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” said Panthers GM Will Carter, who added that Branch also did an opening coin toss several years ago for the South Georgia Wildcats. “He will be here for his (youth football) camp (this weekend), and he will be able to stop by and present the coin toss for us. Hopefully he will bring some additional fans, and it will be a treat for him to be honored in front of his hometown.”
CALLING FOR A BLACK OUT: Crazy.
That’s what Savage thinks the Albany Civic Center will feel like Saturday evening thanks to the team calling for a “black out” and asking the thousands of fans who will be in attendance to wear black shirts.
“If everybody comes in with black on, it’s going to be real crazy,” Savage said. “That could be like our ninth man out here.”
Kennedy played several home games in the Civic Center when he was a quarterback for the South Georgia Wildcats several years ago and said there is nothing like the playoff atmosphere in Albany.
“The energy can be electric,” he said. “The fans love this team, and the team loves playing in front of them.”
The fans aren’t the only ones who will be wearing all black Saturday night. The team will be in all-black uniforms for the 15th time in the past two seasons, and they are undefeated in their first 14 outings with black jerseys and black pants.
TICKETS STILL ON SALE: Tickets for Saturday’s game are going fast.
Carter said Wednesday that the team has already sold 4,000 tickets as of Tuesday, but there is still plenty of seats left to watch Albany face its bitter rival for a place in the inaugural PIFL championship game.
Tickets are available for $10 in advance and $15 the day of the game. Fans can visit the Albany Civic Center Box Office or call (229) 317-7201 to purchase tickets.