Albany Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester was one of several of the team’s top players to retire after the program’s streak of league titles ended in June with a 61-46 loss to Alabama in the PIFL semifinals. (Herald file photo)
The Albany Panthers’ 61-46 loss to Alabama in the semifinals of the PIFL playoffs in late June was the end of an era for the indoor football team.
Not only did the loss snap a two-year streak of league championship titles, but it was the final game for several of the franchise’s most recognizable players, including quarterback Cecil Lester.
“It’s the end,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis told The Herald after the loss. “Now it’s a new chapter in our organization.”
Also joining Lester in retirement were receivers Clenton Rafe and Antwone Savage and fullback Derrick Wimbush, while star defensive back Damien Daniels decided to sign with the Columbus Lions.
The Panthers ended the year with a 7-6 record — a far cry from the previous two years when they were nearly unbeatable. Prior to the 2013 season, they made the playoffs four straight years, won back-to-back league championships in 2011 and 2012 and became the most successful PIFL franchise.
This past summer, they had to close the door on a remarkable era.
Nobody was more crucial to the franchise’s success than Lester, whose career took one turn after another in a Panthers uniform until he ultimately became the “cornerstone” of the team.
“I would definitely consider him the cornerstone of our franchise the last four years,” Davis said during the summer. “I have so much respect for him because of the ups and downs he has been through the last four years he has been here. I have heard fans heckle him. There was a game where the fans booed him. He has been lashed at a lot, but he never quit.”
In recent months, however, the Panthers have started to refill their roster and announced their 2014 schedule that begins March 22 against Nashville.
Davis and the Panthers are ready to start a new era.
“We will be back and better next season,” Davis said after the 2013 playoff loss. “We learned this year that you have to accept the bitter with the sweet. I am proud of my team. If you look at the accomplishments I had with these guys for the last four years, that’s a lot to be thankful for.”
Postseason success had been a constant the past few years for a program that consistently posted some of the best attendance numbers in the league, but the unexpected end to the Panthers’ championship streak and the loss of many of their top players is what makes this The Herald’s No. 9 sports story of 2013.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Herald’s sports staff has chosen Southwest Georgia’s Top 10 sports stories from 2013. Today marks the second of the 10 we’ve picked as having a significant impact as we count down to No. 1, which will appear in the Jan. 1 addition. Look for No. 8 in Wednesday’s Herald.