It was a season of firsts for the Portal Panthers, unfortunately advancing past the second round of the state playoffs wasn’t one of them. Friday night at the Portal Athletic Complex the Panthers lost a hard-fought defensive battle 14-12 to Telfair County to end the 2023 season.
Portal had a few good chances to take the lead, but their last three offensive possessions ended with a fumble at the Telfair 22-yard line, a turnover on downs, and an interception. After driving to the Telfair 28-yard line with just over a minute to play in the game, Portal quarterback Elijah Coleman was hit as he attempted a pass downfield and was picked off by the Trojans. They were then able to run out the clock ended the Panthers impressive season.
“Despite the loss I was proud of how our guys fought out there and competed,” said coach Jason McEachin. “I hate it for these special seniors but it was a heck of a ride this year.”
Scoring points hadn’t been a problem for the Panthers who came in averaging 36 points per game, but were held to a season low 12 points by the Trojans. Telfair County came in scoring over 28 points per game but were held to only two scores by the Portal defense which matched a season low.
Telfair started the scoring on an 18-yard pass from quarterback Antonio Scott to Kenneth King who got hit hard at the goal line, but managed to fall in to give Telfair a 7-0 lead.
Portal was able to answer on their next drive as Amir Jackson caught a screen pass from Elijah Coleman and proceeded to spin off a pair of defenders, broke two tackles and then managed to hit the pylon for the touchdown. The two-point conversion failed leaving the score 7-6 at the end of the first.
Jackson made an impressive play on defense on the Trojan’s next drive as he stripped the ball loose from Bradyn Cook after a long run and the Panthers recovered at their own 28-yard line. Jackson had a scary moment on the very next play as he went up for a pass and was hit hard by a pair of Trojan defenders. He had to be carried off the field, but was able to return on Portal’s next series.
Just before the half Coleman hit Charles McNeal with a 20-yard pass down to the Trojan one-yard line. Coleman snuck through on the next play. The two-point conversion failed again, and that would prove costly as the Panthers failed on both their two-point tries and ended up losing by two points.
Telfair scored on a seven-yard run by Cook in the third quarter to take a 14-12 lead. That would be the final points of the game.
After allowing Telfair to go 3-3 on fourth down tries, the Portal defense held the Trojans on two key fourth down attempts in the second half. Portal would get to the Trojan 22-yard line but Charles Washington fumbled after picking up a first down.
“I really thought our defense may have played their best game of the season,” McEachin said. “We gave ourselves some chances but our offense was unable to take advantage. Credit to Telfair they are a very good football team.”
Aside from their short touchdown run, Portal struggled to find success on third and fourth down and short. In the fourth the Panthers had third and two from their own 30-yard line and were stuffed on a run up the middle. They would then go for it on fourth and one and Chase Smith was stood up and failed to get the needed yardage.
Portal ends the season 8-4 after claiming their first region title and hosting for the first time in the second round of the state. Coach McEachin now has the unenviable task of finding replacements for some key seniors including Jackson and Coleman who are likely to both be playing Division-1 football next year.
“My heart is really hurting for our seniors who are so special,” McEachin said. “We are losing a lot but they have laid the foundation and showed these younger guys how it is supposed to be done. I expect the underclassmen to follow their lead and try and be just as successful.”