Albany Panthers WR Johnny Lester reaches over the goal line for a TD in the first half of Saturday’s game in the Albany Civic Center against the Louisiana Swashbucklers.
ALBANY — As two-time defending champions, the Albany Panthers knew they'd have a target on their back from the season opener. No matter their opponent's previous record, every team in the PIFL would be itching for their shot to knock them down a peg.
With that said, it was no surprise to them that the Louisiana Swashbucklers felt the same way; the Bucs jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first half, and didnt seem to miss a beat afterwards. However, the Panthers' defense made plays when it mattered, and played a huge role in a hard- fought 45-42 win for the home crowd.
“We were playing bad, but luckily we were only down a touchdown or so. We settled down and made plays, and everything else took care of itself.”
On the subsequent possession after the Panthers took their first lead of the game on a Trae Ivory touchdown run, Tito Hannah sacked Swashbucklers QB Chris Mitchell in the end zone to give the Panthers a 38-34 lead with 6:45 left in regulation. After retaining possession, the Panthers drove downfield, milking the clock and icing the game as Cecil Lester plunged in from the goal line with 42 seconds left on the clock. The Bucs would tack on a touchdown with under ten seconds left in regulation, but it was all for naught.
“We just had to remind ourselves it’s arena football, and that we have to take it one play at a time,” said Hannah after the game. “As a veteran, you have to make plays. And when they’re that deep [in their own territory], you have to pin them.”
Hannah was responsible for two of the game’s most crucial plays.
The Panthers’ offense bounced back like it normally has; despite the first two quarters, each filled with miscommunication, mental errors, and miscues, the Panthers got it together. The resurgence was due to, in part, a drive that went the length of the field with less than ten seconds left in the second quarter. The drive was capped with a Mere Trout field goal that cut the Swashbucklers' lead to 21-14 at the break.
“We were just in a funk,” said a relieved Cecil Lester after the game. “We just had to make sure we didn’t separate. That’s football. That’s adversity. When we start looking too far ahead, that’s what happens.”
However, the Panthers wouldn't be on their heels for long. Two plays into the second half, Tito Hannah sacked and stripped the ball from Bucs quarterback Chris Mitchell, giving the Panthers the ball at the four-yard line. From there, Cecil Lester connected with John Harris to level the playing field.
“Tito and Larry were huge,” said Davis. “If we don’t get those plays from those guys, we don’t stand a chance.”
“We just had to come back out and have fun,” said Harris of the dismal first half. “We had to stop trying to force plays and just make them when they came to us.”
But the Bucs' offense had their sights set on upstaging the home team. Jordan Rideaux and Chris Mitchell traded blows with Lester and Harris all night; the visitors connected seven times for 110 yards and two touchdowns. John Harris caught eight passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. Reserve receiver Johnny Lester caught seven passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns, in one of his best efforts to date.
“I just did my part. I got to play a lot more today,” said Lester, “so I tried to help out the team as much as I could with the opportunity I got. They were leaving the middle of the field open, so we adjusted for it.”
“I don’t think they were looking for him, but at the same time, that was the right read. We knew what coverage they’d run for that formation. We knew he’d be open, so I just connected with him.”
Though both passing offenses were effective, the efforts of both teams running backs cannot be understated. The Bucs' Kenneth Perry grinded out 37 tough yards and three touchdowns. The Panthers’ Trae Ivory added a touchdown of his own.
Cecil Lester went 20-for38 with 262 yards passing, four total touchdowns and two interceptions. Chris Mitchell added four touchdowns and two turnovers.
The Panthers, who moved to 4-3 with the victory, travel to Lehigh Valley to take on the next weekend. The 3-4 Swashbucklers have an upcoming bye week.