PORTAL — As the Portal High football team winds down summer workouts, it faces a familiar tune, but is hoping for something other than the same old song and dance.
Coming off of a fifth consecutive losing season and entering the 2011 campaign with its third head coach in as many years, Portal has an uphill climb, but is prepared to meet the challenge.
"Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done, but that’s what we’ve been taking care of over the summer," said Portal coach David NeSmith, who made the move from Statesboro High and replaced Cherard Freeman during spring practice in May. "This is a part of the offseason where we need to condition ourselves and prepare for a long season ahead of us."
Coming into the picture so late in the process — NeSmith was announced as coach while other county schools were in the middle of the Georgia High School Association’s two weeks of allotted contact drills in the spring — has caused some bumps in the road, but over two months into the job, NeSmith and his staff feel comfortable with the trust that they have gained in the team and the progress that has been made in switching to new offensive and defensive schemes.
But — as the trend has been for the Panthers in the last few seasons — X’s and O’s aren’t Portal’s biggest problem.
As a school that is consistently near the bottom of enrollment charts of GHSA schools that field football programs, turnout is an ongoing battle for the Panthers. Numbers were low last season and only suffered more as injuries mounted and key players missed time.
This season, Portal can still expect to be outnumbered on the sidelines, but NeSmith hopes that an offseason full of conditioning will help his players rise to the challenge. The Panthers have spent their entire summer break on a routine that involves three days of weightlifting and conditioning each week — a method that should come in handy come the regular season.
"If you look at Portal’s record the last few years, the wins haven’t been there," said NeSmith. "But that doesn’t tell the whole story. We have hung in there in a lot of games, but just ran out of steam late.
"That’s one of the things we’ve been stressing all summer. We’re hoping to have 30 to 35 kids on the roster, but a lot of guys will only be coming off the field at halftime. It’s going to be a battle and people are going to be tired, but we have to suck it up and be a stronger team in the fourth quarter."
Having the endurance to play both ways is enough of a challenge, but knowing the game plan on both sides of the ball is a different story.
While other teams dealing with coaching changes might have to deal with a few changes in the way each player goes about his position, the two-way players at Portal have double the workload — a definite change of pace for NeSmith, who was used to dealing with the 100-plus players on the SHS roster that often play just one position all year.
This season, the Panthers will change from a triple-option offense to the wishbone that NeSmith dealt with at SHS. The defense will also change from a 52 scheme to a 4-4 look that will require lots of new assignments for players to learn.
"It’s a lot to ask for young men to learn two new positions in one summer," said NeSmith. "But that’s the job at hand. Luckily, we have a good core of returning players that set a great example. Our goal every day is to leave the field a better team than when we stepped on and so far, I think we’ve accomplished that. We just need to keep it going on into the season."
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.