ALBANY — As PIFL league front-runners and two-time defending champions, one would think preseason preparation for the Albany Panthers would be a little tense.
The atmosphere throughout the Albany Civic Center was uncannily calm as Cecil Lester and the Panthers’ core group of aging yet confident contributors underwent their last couple of practices before their season opener.
“It feels great,” said Lester, who will start his fourth season as the Panthers quarterback tonight on the road in Louisiana. “There’s no pressure like there was in previous years. We’re just out there playing football.”
They may be a lot older, but there’s a lot of kid in this Panther team that is loaded with veterans who are still young enough to love playing arena football — and everyone loves the idea of the three-peat.
Lester and five other starters flirted with the idea of riding off into the sunset, but figured we’ve already reached the top. Why stop now?
They just couldn’t walk away from a good thing.
Coach Lucious Davis is just as confident, but making sure to take all the good news with a grain of salt.
“The difference is, we’re a bit older, so we don’t have to spend too much time teaching. However, you never now how these guys’ bodies will respond to it.”
Of the 28 Panthers, seven are over the age of 30, including Lester.
Their first test will come from a new and improved Louisiana Swashbucklers squad on the road tonight in Lake Charles, La.
Louisiana returns five players from last year’s team, who only lost to the Panthers by a combined ten points in their two meetings a year ago.
“We have to take advantage of every opportunity. That’s got to be our focus,’’ Louisiana coach Darnell Lee said. “We approach every regular-season game like it’s a playoff game and try to play mistake-free football.”
After coming within one win of the PIFL championship, the Bucs added sixteen new players, including New Mexico State University’s all-time leading receiver (receptions, yards), A.J. Harris, as well as former Panthers backup quarterback Chris Mitchell.
Lee knows they went toe-to-toe with one of the league’s best offenses, and has prepared accordingly. He’s tinkered with the defense, moving cornerback Damien Huren to a hybrid safety-linebacker position.
“We had to go pick up some more speed on the back side of our defense, and get a better pass rush up front,’’ Lee said.
Lester carved the Bucs up for 415 yards and five touchdowns in last year’s meetings.
“We were right there with them, and they did the things they needed to when it mattered the most,” said Lee. “To be able to play the defending champs in the first game, it means we find out where we are as a team right now.”
The Bucs were a couple of late turnovers and a missed field goal away from sweeping their series with the Panthers last year.
Panthers receiver John Harris is enjoying the spoils of being defending champs for now, but won’t downplay the downside that comes with them.
“I think this season will be the hardest one of them all. Everyone hates a winner,’’ Jackson said. “I heard they’ve even got a poll [on the PIFL website] about who’s going to knock off the champs. I just laugh at it.”