PANTHERS NOTEBOOK: Two-time defending champ Albany no longer the hunted — now it's the hunters

Looking Ahead

WHO: Albany Panthers at Louisiana Swashbucklers.

WHAT: Defending league champion Panthers’ 2013 season opener.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Lake Charles, La.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

ALBANY — Pressure?

You would think there would be plenty of it hanging over the Albany Panthers, who open their defense of back-to-back arena-league titles Saturday night in Louisiana.

Just don’t mention it to quarterback Cecil Lester.

“There’s no pressure this year,’’ Lester said at practice Wednesday. “The mindset is different. We’ve done it before. It’s not like we don’t know how to get there. The first year we had to pull together and have all hands on deck. The second year we had to have all hands on deck.

Lester then added: “But it was harder, because we were defending the title. It was much harder last year. But (we have won it twice, so) there’s no pressure this year. We’re not the hunted any more. We’re the hunter.’’

EVERYONE ALL IN — AGAIN: The Panthers made it two in a row last season, but after that second title many of the veterans said they were going to retire from arena football. But all of them, including Lester, receivers Antwone Savage of Albany, and Clenton Rafe, fullback Derrick Wimbush and defensive end Tito Hannah, came back.

Defensive back Demetrie McCray, who was a star at Albany State and a key member of the 2010 and 2011 Panther teams, also hinted at retirement. McCray sat out last season with a knee injury, but he’s back, too.

“I wasn’t surprised to see everyone come back,’’ Panthers coach Lucious Davis said Wednesday. “I know these guys. We’ve been talking for a while during the whole offseason.’’

There is a bond, a camaraderie with this team that most arena football teams don’t have. It is a league full of gypsies and turnover, which makes this Panthers team unique.

“It was a pleasant surprise to get everybody back,’’ said linebacker Larry Edwards, who is the leader on defense. “Everybody still has a passion for the game. We want to make it three (in a row). We are such a veteran team. Everybody knows their role. We have to take advantage of that. It’s very rare to have a group of veterans (in this league), very rare.’’

NEW FACES: There are some new faces on this year’s team, including backup quarterback James Stedman, who was the backup at Richmond last season. Stedman not only played in the title game against the Panthers last year, but he came in when starter Antwon Young was ejected and finished the night, running for two TDs and throwing for two touchdowns. He was impressive in the loss and brings experience in arena ball to the team.

Davis has high hopes for defensive back Stoney Woodson, who starred at South Carolina and was drafted in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Giants and was on the practice squad in New York and also with the Eagles and Bucs during a two-year stretch.

Davis said Johnny Lester, who is Cecil’s cousin, will also join the team as a receiver, and he has high expectations him as well.

“Stoney is going to start, and Johnny will be one of our receivers,” Davis said. “We’re expecting big things from those guys.’’

Davis said there are three new local faces on this year’s team: Dontarrious Thomas, an Albany native, joins the team as a defensive back, and Kevin Williams, a defensive lineman who played at Monroe High School, and Nick Wiggans, a Lee County High product, will also see playing time along the defensive line as backups.

30-SOMETHING PANTHERS: Receiver John Harris joked at practice Wednesday about this year’s team, saying “We’re old.’’

Then he quickly added, “We’re old, but we still got it.’’

Davis knows both sides of the coin of having so many veterans, and he likes it.

“It’s good and bad,’’ he said. “We don’t have to spend too much time teaching, and it’s bad because you don’t know how their bodies are going to feel. We have (seven) guys over 30.’’

The over-30 club includes defensive lineman Anton Ceaser. Cecil Lester, Savage, Rafe, Wimbush, Hannah, and Harris.

Davis laughed and said he wasn’t getting any younger either, pointing to his head, where there isn’t as much hair as there was when he took over the team four years ago.

“I’m going to be 40 this year,’’ he said.

Davis’ birthday is June 3 and comes two days after the Panthers play their ninth game of the season June 1 against Richmond in the Civic Center. They will have three games left at that point in the 12-game regular season.

Davis could celebrate his birthday by clinching an early playoff berth, but the schedule is going to be tough on the Panthers in the early going.

ROAD PANTHERS: Not only do the two-time defending champs have to open on the season on the road in Louisiana, but they won’t be in the Good Life City at all in the month of April, playing two road games and sitting out two bye weeks that month.

They play their home opener March 16 against rival Columbus and play Alabama the next week at home, but then they don’t play another game in the Civic Center for six weeks as they have three road games and three bye weeks before coming home to face Louisiana on May 11.

“It really doesn’t bother us (to play the opener on the road). We have to play them (at some point) there any way,’’ Davis said. “We don’t play any games at home in April, but that doesn’t bother us. We end the season with (three of the last four games at home). I would rather have that because if you are fighting for a playoff position at the end of the season you would rather be at home.’’

INTERNET VOTING?: Harris said he knows everyone is out to get the Panthers this season, and joked about seeing a poll on the league’s website.

“They have a poll to vote for the team that’s going to knock off the champions,’’ Harris said. "No, I didn’t vote. I just laughed at it.’’