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2012 SEASON PREVIEW: Reigning champ Panthers on the prowl again

Third-year Albany Panthers head coach Lucious Davis, right, directs practice earlier this week as new addition to the defense, Damian Daniels — the league’s four-time Defensive Player of the Year — looks on. The reigning champs have worked tirelessly the last few months to prepare for tonight’s season opener. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Third-year Albany Panthers head coach Lucious Davis, right, directs practice earlier this week as new addition to the defense, Damian Daniels — the league’s four-time Defensive Player of the Year — looks on. The reigning champs have worked tirelessly the last few months to prepare for tonight’s season opener. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY --- Cecil Lester will glance up at the banner every now and then.

It’s bound to catch his eye during a midweek practice or as the national anthem is being played before a game.

But when the 2011 Southern Indoor Football League Championship banner is unveiled before tonight’s season opener against the Richmond Raiders, Lester’s thoughts will be in just one place — the present.

“We have that title over our heads now, but everything is still the same,” said Lester, the Panthers’ starting quarterback. “We still work hard and still practice hard.”

It’s a brand new season with brand new expectations for the Panthers, who aren’t going to forget about last season’s title. But they also aren’t going to dwell on it either as they begin the 2012 season in the newly-formed Professional Indoor Football League after the SIFL folded this past offseason after three years.

Panthers coach Lucious Davis even quieted talk of having a ring ceremony before tonight’s game against Richmond, a decision that was aimed at keeping the focus on this season.

Want To Go, Listen or Follow Online?

WHO: Richmond Raiders (1-0) at Albany Panthers (0-0).

WHAT: 2012 season and home opener for the Albany Panthers.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.

WHERE: Albany Civic Center.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

LIVE UPDATES: Follow game at: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports

TICKETS: Call (229) 317-7201 or visit www.ticketmaster....

“I didn’t want to do it like that,” Davis said. “I don’t want to take away from the game. As a coach, if they give me my ring then I want to wear it and make notice that I have it on. If I do that during a game day, I may not be there mentally.”

The Panthers are expecting big things out of their third season in Albany, and much of those expectations hinge on the offense. Lester, who was the SIFL MVP in 2010 and threw 64 touchdowns last season and only 15 interceptions — including 10 scores in the Panthers’ 69-48 win against the Louisiana Swashbucklers in the SIFL Championship game — is returning at quarterback and will be surrounded by the same group of starters that beat Louisiana in last season’s title game.

“We are trying not to miss a beat,” Lester said. “We have been together now for at least three years. I feel comfortable with them, and they feel comfortable with me.”

They should.

Returning at receiver are former Westover star Antwone Savage (20 TDs) and Americus-Sumter grads John Harris (16 TDs) and Antwon Cutts (15 TDs), while running back Derrick Wimbush, who led the team with nine rushing touchdowns, is also back.

Lester also gets three of his trench protectors back in returning offensive linemen Terrance Smith (center) and Aaron Wheeler and Demetrice Jackson (tackles).

“We are trying to pick up where we left off at the end of last season and be a dominant force from the beginning,” Smith said. “We have more focus this year, and we are here to win (another) championship.”

Davis said he is confident in his offense, but it remains to be seen how the Panthers’ new-look defense will fare with only three starters returning — linebacker Larry Edwards and cornerbacks Corey Rue and Levance Richmond.

The rest of the defense, however, has plenty of experience to go around. Safety and four-time defensive MVP Damian Daniels and linebacker Ryan Babb have joined Albany from Columbus — Albany’s biggest rival from the SIFL, which also moved to the PIFL — and defensive ends Anton Ceasar and Royce Morgan, both of whom played for Davis when he was an assistant in the af2 and have years of experience in arena football.

“Defensively we look real good considering we have a lot of new faces,” Davis said. “The one thing I have tried to do is make sure the new faces are a bunch of veterans. They know the game. They just have to understand our scheme.”

The biggest face missing from the Panthers’ roster is defensive back Demetrie McCray, who left to play up a level in the AFL and then suffered a season-ending injury on the first day of practice.

“He was huge,” Lester said about McCray, who is also an assistant defensive backs coach at Albany State. “He was a communicator and a facilitator out there. He was a guy who made sure everybody stayed on an even keel. When a situation got rough, he would keep them calm.”

There was a sense of calm earlier this week at the Panthers’ practice, where they were preparing for Richmond — a team that Albany swept last season in a couple of close games.

The Panthers seemed confident in their abilities but motivated by a preseason poll on a Richmond Raiders blog that had Columbus at No. 1, Richmond at No. 2 and Albany at No. 3.

“How we are looking at that is that Columbus was No. 1, and (Richmond) beat Columbus,” Smith said, referring to Richmond’s 64-58 win against Columbus in last week’s season opener for both teams. “We figure that we are No. 1 in our poll, so it’s No. 1 vs. No. 1 and we will find who the champs are (tonight).”

The Panthers don’t actually have a team poll, but they do have a championship banner waving in the Civic Center rafters that speaks a little louder than any unofficial poll.

“If that’s how they feel about us, that they are No. 1 and we are No. 3 so be it,” Lester said. “We will settle it on the field (today).”