Getting to 1,000 points in a high school basketball career is quite an accomplishment. The list of current Bulloch County basketball players to surpass that prestigious mark includes Alyssa Staten and Reya Johnson at Statesboro High, Ashantay Noble and Jackson Sheppard at Bulloch Academy, and a trio at Portal as Amir Jackson, Elijah Coleman and Joseph Thomas have each scored over 1,500 points as four-year starters for the Panthers.
The three amigos burst onto the scene as freshmen and helped lead the Panthers to the state quarterfinals. Since then, they have continued to help the Panthers to be ranked among the top teams in the state, making it to the second round as sophomores and back to the Elite-8 last year before losing in the final seconds against Wilkinson County.
Head coach Jeff Brannen knew when the three of them arrived as freshman it could be a special time over the next four years.
“I knew how good Elijah and Joe were as they were managers on our team when they were in middle school,” Brannen said. “Amir played on the AAU team and they had talked a lot about him. You could just see how the three of them clicked ever since their first game here. They have all grown in their games, but you could tell from their freshman year that they were going to be special.”
The three players each have a unique skill set as well.
“Joe is the shooter,” Brannen said. “He has always been a good shooter, but now has the ability to just take over a game like he did the other night against Bryan County when he had 35 including eight 3-pointers. Elijah sets the tempo and is like our coach on the floor. He has the ability to take it strong to the basket or set up his teammates when it’s needed. Amir does a lot of the dirty work with rebounding, but he also has good touch and is leading the team in field goal percentage at 60 percent.”
Brannen says the impact the three players have had reaches farther than the basketball court.
“They are role models for the kids around here,” Brannen said. “They have started every game since coming here to Portal. They mean so much to the people in this community. You can see how hard the fans root for all these guys, but especially the seniors, which includes Marion Tremble.
"When they do something, the fans respond. After the game they stick around and talk to the fans and are always appreciative of their respect.”
All three players admit the crowd pumps them up and that is why they feel home court is such an advantage in the state playoffs.
“At first, playing in front of the fans here was a little overwhelming,” Jackson said. “Over time we have gotten used to it and hearing them cheer really gets us going.”
"I tried to block it out a lot when I first got here,” Thomas said. “Over time you really appreciate what they do, especially to the other team when they all start trash talking and getting in the other team’s heads.”
“We definitely have the best fans around,” Coleman said. “They can become toxic to the other team and we can feed off that and when they are cheering for us. They make us want to try even harder and they appreciate when we go on a run and make so much noise, it really gets us going.”
This year Portal is 23-1 overall and 9-0 in region play. All three players are averaging double figures with Thomas leading the way at over 17 points per game. Jackson is leading the team in rebounding and collected his 1,000th career rebound earlier this month. Coleman has seen his point total decrease over the past two seasons, but he is leading the team in steals at nearly three per game and has over 500 career assists.
The players want to go out and make history in their final season as their goal is a state championship. With a 48-2 record in their last 50 games that dream seems attainable.
“I feel like if we play as a team, we have a good shot of going all the way,” Coleman said. “With Marion and David Thomas continuing to improve, our chemistry is great. Lately some of the guys on the bench like Brian McQueen and K.J. Hunter have been stepping up and that’s what we need to win a championship.”
“We have been able to make it close in the past and I feel like we know what it takes to win it all,” Thomas said. “We have played a tough schedule and we just have to embrace the pressure. That is what you sign up for when you play the game.”
“Going to Atlanta and playing some tough teams before our region has us ready,” Jackson said. "We are used to the pressure and we are just going to go out their and play our game and have fun, and see what we can do.”
Portal wraps up the regular season Friday at home against Jenkins County in a battle for the top seed in next week’s region tournament at Montgomery County. The girls get things underway at 6 p.m.