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Portal Panthers hyped to go to Final Four
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    PORTAL — So far, 2008 has been an exciting year for the town of Portal. First, there was the family that was thrust into the national spotlight after cashing in a Mega Millions lottery ticket, and now, the Portal Panthers are heading to Macon for the semifinals of the GHSA Class A state basketball playoffs.
    The Panthers have never won a state championship and haven't had this much success in at least 50 years. The Panthers finished runners-up in the 1947 season. As PHS has kept winning and winning throughout the 2007-08 season, fans of the program have started catching the fever, realizing just how good their team is.
    “I’ve been to a couple of games. I didn’t think they were a serious team until somebody told me,” said Portal resident Pat Williams. “They’re going real good this year. They haven’t lost but one game at the Christmas tournament, so I came out to watch them. That number 25 — (David) Buchannon — he’s the best player I’ve seen out here for a long time.”
    The success of the Panthers (29-1) came as a shock to many residents of the small community. On paper, the team seems overmatched by bigger, taller teams.
    “We are very surprised how far they got since we are a (smaller) team — shorter than most others,” said PHS junior Parker Goodman. “We’ve never won a championship in about anything. A region championship in basketball? … It’s pretty good.”
    Most fans weren’t around the last time the team had much success in the state playoffs.
    “We are so excited. It’s wonderful,” said Portal Middle/High School teacher Jennifer Yates. “In the 1950’s, I think they finished pretty high. I think (it was) ’57. It’s the first time they’ve been this far in a while.”
    The Panthers have had quite a turnout at home games, packing the gym with students, faculty, players from some of the region’s other teams and fans from all over the area. It is the way the fans have traveled that has shown just how important this team is to its community.
    The crowd in Macon should be no exception.
    “I’m the first thing smoking out of here,” Williams said. “Probably everybody from Portal (will be there). Portal will be a ghost town (today), and probably everybody from Statesboro. Half of Statesboro will be a ghost town. The surrounding counties, they followed us over there to Columbus (for the Elite Eight matchup against Terrell County), so we’re expecting a big crowd.”
    The people of the tiny southeast Georgia town are glad to see themselves in the spotlight for once.
    “It means everything (to Portal),” said Williams. “We’re finally getting the recognition we deserve. For so many years people were overlooking us. It’s a country town, and it’s finally time for (people to see) the country town.”
    The team is glad to have given its community so much to be excited about. There have been many exciting moments throughout the season, including close calls against Screven County, Statesboro, Emanuel County Institute, and Terrell County in Saturday’s win, but PHS has kept its eyes on the prize.
    “As a coach, you always dream of playing in the state championship game, and winning a state championship game,” said Panther coach Jeff Brannen. “You can’t overlook anybody, but the big picture’s there. We’ve got to take advantage of this opportunity in the Final Four and get this game. Then we’ll start thinking about the state championship game.
    “Like I told (the team) earlier, nobody remembers second place. From the set, that was one of our goals — to win the region and win the state. We haven’t achieved that other goal yet, but we’re working toward it.”
    What does the town think its Panthers chances are of bringing a state title back to Portal — is it possible?
    “Yeah, they could,” Williams said. “They could easily go all the way. All they have to do is stay focused, because that (Terrell County) team they (beat) – I think that was the best team in the whole tournament.”
    Today’s semifinal game is in Macon at 5 p.m. against Hancock Central.
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