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Panthers: We’ll step up in Savage’s absence

After going down with a season-ending injury last Saturday, star wideout Antwone Savage plans to do whatever he can to help the team during its stretch run. (Herald file photo)

After going down with a season-ending injury last Saturday, star wideout Antwone Savage plans to do whatever he can to help the team during its stretch run. (Herald file photo)

Looking Ahead

WHO: Albany Panthers (5-4) at Columbus Lions (4-6).

WHAT: Final road game of the season, annual rivalry meeting.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Columbus.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

ALBANY — Even in their stunning 69-63, triple-overtime victory against the Richmond Raiders Saturday night, the Panthers couldn’t escape fully unscathed heading into this week’s in-state rivalry showdown with the Columbus Lions.

Former Westover and University of Oklahoma star Antwone Savage — who returned for one last season just for the chance to lead the two-time defending league champion Panthers to an unprecedented three-peat — broke his tibia and fibula in the win, effectively ending his career with Albany just weeks before the playoffs.

“It’s tough on us right now,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said during Tuesday’s practice — the team’s first without Savage. “We just have to collectively pick up the slack. The other receivers, (quarterback Cecil Lester) and the offensive line all have to step up for him.”

Savage finished the season with 28 catches for 418 yards and five touchdowns. And during a year in which the Panthers have lost quite a few tough, close games, Savage’s injury is just the latest bump in the road.

“We’ve been going through it all year,” Lester said of this season’s adversity. “We’re kinda used to that part of it. We’re battle-tested. We’ve got a lot of veterans, guys who’ve been in tough games before.”

But the Panthers simply can’t replace a guy like Savage — they can only try.

“It was a big loss for us,” said fellow WR Johnny Lester. “So with me being the new guy and (Antwon) Cutts going to defensive back, I have to continue to help the team succeed.”

When the Panthers line up against the Lions on Saturday, they’ll do so with one of their most important players serving as a de facto team cheerleader.

“I think he’ll be at the game,” Davis said. “It’ll be good for the guys to feel his presence there.”

On the field or off of it, Savage will be missed.

“We have to make sure we understand the magnitude of the injury and the leadership he brought to the team,” Lester said.

Though Savage won’t travel with the team, his presence will undoubtedly influence the Panthers’ season going forward.

“I’ve known him for about five years now,” fellow receiver John Harris said. “It’s a big loss. He’s a big part of our offense. One of those veteran guys, and a good friend at the same time.”

Davis said there’s only one way to honor their leader: suck it up and go out and win.

“Not having that guy out there hurts,” Davis said. “You don’t have that guy you know you can depend on to make a play, you don’t have that extra pair of eyes that could see something I wouldn’t see. I’ll miss that part.”

Not having Savage around the locker room for the rest of the year doesn’t effectively remove him from the team’s consciousness. Though he currently works as a P.E. teacher at Turner Elementary School and has alife away from football — plus the injury to deal with — it’s safe to say Savage won’t be far away.

“All the players stay in contact with him,” Davis said. “They talk to each other every day, so even though he’s physically not here, he’s still with us in that way.”

With three games left on the schedule before the playoffs start, Savage’s injury serves as a huge gut-check for the defending champs.

“We’ve faced our fair share of adversity this year,” he said. “The close losses, the bad calls, the injuries, the penalties, you name it. I think it’s gotten us primed for the playoffs. We’re ready to go.”