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Panthers rally around grief-stricken coach
Portal travels to ECI
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P ortal running back Travis Budgett (48) takes on a Southeast Bulloch defender earlier this season. The Panthers travel to Twin City to face No. 2 Emanuel County Institute tonight.

    PORTAL — The Portal Panthers have struggled throughout the 2007 season, losing the first seven games of the year. But last Friday at homecoming they erupted for 399 offensive yards and 52 points and took down Region 3-A foe Calvary Day to get in the win column for the first time since a 47-22 victory over Jenkins County on Nov. 10, 2006.
    How did they turn it around?
    Step one was a facelift on the offense. After trying their hand at the triple option to kick off 2007, PHS suffered through turnovers and lack of production during the first half of the season.
    “We had a lot of problems early on,” said offensive coordinator Grayson Huskins, “making the right reads and correct blocks. We were allowing too much penetration, and (had trouble) holding on to the football. We’ve got some good running backs and we have to get the football into their hands. By going to the shotgun-spread stuff it gives us a better option to do that. And, with an inexperienced offensive line, we don’t have to rely on them to drive people off the football quite as much.”
    Running back Ocatavious Rawls switched places with quarterback Steven Cox and started taking some snaps for the Panthers. He averaged 12.5 yards on 13 carries against the Cavaliers and scored three times.
    In fact, Portal spread the ball around to five different running backs. Four of them scored at least once and they averaged 9.5 yards on 38 carries in the contest. The five backs combined for seven touchdowns.
    Cox excelled in his new role in the backfield, not only grinding out 69 yards but helping out with the blocking as well.
    “(Cox) had his best game of the year (against Calvary),” said Huskins. “Not only did he run the ball, but he had his best game blocking, too. He would throw a block then turn it up field and find someone else to hit.”
    Step two was team unity. Portal rallied around head coach Justin Chester and his wife Sarah after a difficult week.
    “Wednesday around lunch, I got a very disturbing call from my wife,” said Chester. “Her mother passed away unexpectedly. My heart dropped. I called my assistant coaches — (Huskins) and coach Tendai Haggins — and told them what was going on, to tell the guys to pray and to give Sarah and I strength to get through this.”
    Haggins and Huskins noticed the team pulling together as a family and gelling more than it had up until that point.
    “I got a great report from them,” Chester said. “They had a great walkthrough practice Thursday. The coaches said they guys had a little extra pep in their step, so to speak. They really wanted to win this game for my wife.”
    After the homecoming victory, the Panthers, in a show of support, signed the game ball for Chester’s wife. Chester was able to bring her the ball immediately after the conclusion of the game.
    With the team clicking and the new offensive scheme falling into place, the Panthers look to take on one of the top teams in the state. The Emanuel County Bulldogs (8-0, 4-0) will host PHS with a high-powered offense and a dominating defense. The Bulldogs are out-scoring their opponents 338-90 so far this season, so it will be no easy task for Portal.
    The Panthers got a huge dose of confidence in the homecoming blowout last Friday.
    “ECI is a good football team,” said Chester. “But now our guys know we can have some success and we can score some points.”
    Kickoff for the ECI game is at 7:30 p.m. in Twin City. ECI is currently ranked No. 1 in the GHSA Class-A Coaches Poll and are one of the state’s five unbeaten teams in the classification.

    Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9404.