Panthers' season ends with semifinal loss to Hammers

Panthers QB Cecil Lester drops back in the pocket Monday in the PIFL semifinal game, which the Panthers lost, 61-46. (Eric Schultz/Huntsville Times)

Panthers QB Cecil Lester drops back in the pocket Monday in the PIFL semifinal game, which the Panthers lost, 61-46. (Eric Schultz/Huntsville Times)

Mark McCarter/The Huntsville Times

Special to The Herald

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The third time wasn't a charm late Monday for the Albany Panthers, who lost the PIFL semifinal game to the Alabama Hammers, 61-46, which ended the team's chances to win three straight league titles.

After two dismal seasons in which the Hammers compiled a 7-17 record, they are now one win from the city’s first indoor pro football championship since 2008, eliminating the two-time defending champs.

The No. 1 seed Hammers took advantage of three Albany turnovers at the Propst Arena at the Von Braun Center in front of an announced crowd of 2,263, while Albany finishes at 7-6.

It wasn’t an easy ending for the Hammers, who yielded two Albany touchdowns in the final minute but twice recovered onside kicks to preserve the win.

The Hammers (10-2) will host Richmond July 8 in the PIFL championship. Richmond (8-5) defeated Lehigh Valley 44-40 in the other PIFL semifinal. The Hammers will be seeking the first indoor football title for Huntsville since coach Dean Cokinos led the 2008 Tennessee Valley Vipers to the ArenaCup championship.

Russel Hill threw for four touchdown passes for the Hammers, two to C.J. Johnson and one each to Jeremy Grier and Mico McSwain. Grier scored on an interception return and Dan Ross had two rushing touchdowns and Larry Shipp one.

Cecil Lester threw four touchdowns for the Panthers, completing 24-of-42 passes. Antwontis Cutts had two scoring catches, Clenton Rafe and Derrick Wimbush one each.

For a pass-oriented sport, the first half was an anomaly. There wasn’t a score via the pass for the first 29:28, when Hill hit McSwain on a 19-yard TD. On the ensuing play, Grier picked off Lester for a 15-yard interception-return touchdown, giving the Hammers a 31-13 halftime lead.

Ryan Gates and the Hammers’ Brian Jackson swapped field goals, then Wimbush and Ross had near-identical short TD runs; after each, the respective kicker scored a point by knocking the kickoff between the uprights. Following a safety that gave Albany a 13-11 lead, momentum shifted dramatically when Grier recovered a Wimbush fumble on the Panthers’ 6. Shipp followed with a 3-yard run that began the string of 20 unanswered Alabama points.

But after Hill was picked off by Levance Richmond early in the third, Albany countered with a TD passes from Cecil Lester to Antwontis Cutts and Winbush to swing the momentum its way. That was followed by a mistake-filled Hammers series that died inside their 10. However, made a relatively nonchalant return of a short field goal attempt and fumbled. Hill quickly connected with Johnson on a touchdown to make it 41-26.

Lester scored on a short run with a little more than 10 minutes left in the game, but Hill found Grier for a TD pass. Though Albany scored twice in the final minute, on catches by Rafe and Cutts, the Hammers’ Charles McClain and McSwain recovered onside kicks, setting up a Hill insurance TD pass to Johnson and a Ross run as time expired.