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PANTHERS NOTEBOOK: Two-time reigning champ Albany OK with being underdogs

Looking Ahead

WHO: Albany Panthers (7-5) at Alabama Hammers (10-2).

WHAT: Opening round of the PIFL playoffs.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Monday.

WHERE: Hunstville, Ala.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

ALBANY — Lucious Davis knows what other teams around the league — especially the Alabama Hammers — are thinking about his Albany Panthers.

And he’s not blaming them one bit.

“I don’t think they view us with the same respect as in the past,” said Davis, the Panthers’ head coach. “I think they look at us as just another team that is beatable. And you can’t blame them. We have been beatable. We have lost five games.”

It’s a complete role reversal for the two-time defending champions, who open the PIFL playoffs Monday as the No. 4 seed and will play at No. 1 seed Alabama (10-2). For the first time in years, the Panthers (7-5) enter the postseason as underdogs, but that’s just fine for a team that has won five straight playoff games and brings a different type of determination to the field when it’s win-or-go-home.

“The mentality going into the playoffs each year I have been here is totally different from the regular season,” Davis said. “When you have 70-80 percent of your team that is battle-tested and has been through playoff wins, why not be confident?”

In the four-year history of their franchise, the Panthers had never been seeded worse than No. 2 and had never opened up the postseason on the road before this season.

It’s unfamiliar territory for the Panthers, but it’s not anything that a team full of veterans doesn’t think it can handle.

“This year does feel different, but every year is a different journey,” quarterback Cecil Lester said. “This is just a different journey for us. Normally we are at home, but this year we are on the road. We understand who they are and understand they had a great year in the regular season, but it’s the playoffs.”

The Hammers have won five in a row and are 5-1 at home, and Panthers defensive back Corey Rue has heard all about Alabama’s best regular season in franchise history.

“I have a couple of friends who play for Alabama, and they are highly confident that we messed up to get the fourth seed and will have to come see them,” Rue said. “And they are confident that they are going to beat us.”

Rue’s response?

“I just said, ‘We’ll see on July 1,’ ” he said. “I still feel very confident that we are going to go in and handle business. We have just as good a chance to win as the last two years. We pretty much have the same team, so we are definitely in the running to take it again.”

That was the feeling around the Albany Civic Center on Wednesday evening as the Panthers had the first of four practices this week. They don’t mind being underdogs or the pressure that comes along with trying to defend two straight championship seasons.

The Panthers are coming off a win against Columbus in the regular-season finale and have won three of four, but they went through a stretch in the middle of the season when they lost four of five and nearly fell out of the playoff picture.

“I’m not worried what happened in the regular season,” Davis said. “The importance of (Monday’s) game is totally different than the importance of a regular-season game. This is a must-win game for us.”

NO RESPECT?: The Panthers hauled in honor after honor this week, sweeping the PIFL weekly awards and earning two spots on the All-PIFL Team.

But for Davis, it still wasn’t enough.

“The four years I have been here we haven’t got the respect from everybody,” Davis said. “I believe (there should be more Panthers on the First Team), but it’s been that way. Our guys have never got that respect, so it doesn’t bother them. I think each year we have never had the most guys on the (First Team), and it doesn’t matter how good we are.”

Defensive back Damian Daniels and defensive lineman Tito Hannah were Albany’s two representatives on the First Team, while Rue and offensive lineman Aaron Wheeler made the Second Team.

Davis’ complaint was that even though his team is in the final playoff spot, the two teams on the bottom of the league standings seemed to receive more recognition. Columbus (4-8) received seven All-PIFL honors, while last-place Knoxville (2-10) received four.

Only Louisiana, which had two First-Team and one Second-Team recipients, had fewer members on the All-PIFL teams than the Panthers.

And Davis said this isn’t the first year this has happened to his squad.

“Last year we lost two games by a last-second field goal, and we didn’t even have the top number of guys on the team,” Davis said. “It just baffles me how Columbus always has more guys on the all-league team than we do. Each year they have more guys than we do, but each year we are a better team.”

Rue finished second in the league with 65 tackles and was stuck on the Second Team, but the linebacker still seemed grateful for the recognition Wednesday.

“It feels good to be noticed for the work you have done on the field,” Rue said. “It makes you feel special a little bit.”

Daniels is tied for second in the league in interceptions with seven, while Hannah finished first in the league in tackles for loss (12.5) and third in sacks (10).

“They have both been playing consistently and have been playing well,” Davis said about the First-Team honorees.

Receiver Johnny Lester (Offensive Player of the Week), linebacker Larry Edwards (Defensive Player of the Week) and kicker Ryan Gates (Special Team Player of the Week) swept the weekly PIFL awards, but the Panthers’ 59-35 win against Columbus was the only league game last week.

Lester caught a game-high 10 passes for 132 yards and four TDs, Edwards had five tackles and 1.5 sacks and Gates was 1-for-2 on field goal attempts and 6-for-7 on PATs and also nailed two unos.