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Claxton, Portal eye state titles
Portal's Trent Thomas puts an exclamation point on a 75-59 win over Jenkins County with a dunk at the buzzer in this Friday, Jan. 24, file photo, in Millen. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file

Class A Public
State Playoffs
First Round
6 p.m.

    Portal at Claxton
7:30 p.m.

    Stewart County at Portal
    Claxton at Turner County

    The boys and girls squads of Portal and Claxton spent the entire regular season crafting impressive resumes. But a week full of bad weather, long road trips and surprising upsets has left the state playoff brackets jumbled as play begins this week.
    The Portal boys and Claxton girls both reached the top spot of the GHSA’s power poll midway through the season and held on to the top spot down the stretch.
    Both teams maintained their No. 1 rankings through the final poll of the season, but the losses of each in their respective championship games will make the state playoff road a bit bumpier.
    The Portal boys came into the season fresh off of a Final Four appearance in the spring of 2013. The Panthers had little trouble navigating their schedule and notched plenty of impressive wins — including two over defending state champion Wilkinson County — on their way to winning their sub-region.
    Portal made the Region 3-A championship game, but came up short in its quest for a third consecutive title.
    As a result, new region champion Treutlen will be the No. 4 seed in the Class A public school boys bracket while the Panthers fall to No. 6 and will host No. 11 Stewart County Tuesday.
    “We wanted to win a region title, but now we have to focus on what’s ahead,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said.
    Despite a lower seed than it would have liked, Portal remains a threat to make a deep run.
    Stacey Morgan is in his fourth year as the team’s biggest offensive threat and is on the short list for region Player of the Year honors.
    Harrison Sherrod and Trent Thomas combine to form the Panthers’ most dangerous frontcourt in years and a deep bench has the team primed for another deep run.
    “I think it helps that we have a lot of guys who have played big games,” Brannen said. “We’ve played a tough schedule and a lot of our guys have been in the playoffs before. That helps, but we still have to make sure that we play our best.”
    The Lady Tigers of Claxton are also hoping to take the next step in the postseason.
    Claxton had a banner season last year in advancing to the state quarterfinals.
    Like the Portal boys, the Tigers entered this season as a favorite and proved everyone right by compiling a 23-5 record.
    Also like Portal, only a setback in the Region 3-A title game prevented the Tigers from entering the state playoffs as the top seed.
    Claxton dropped to the No. 5 spot and will have a familiar opponent Monday night as Portal comes to town.
    The Tigers defeated the Panthers twice in the regular season and again in the region tournament, but Portal — playing with a fully healthy roster for the first time last week — is a potential upset in waiting.
    Claxton’s boys enter the state tournament with fewer accolades, but still expect to make their mark.
    Last season, a young Tigers squad fell just short of the postseason as one one-hundredth of a point in the power poll left them on the outside looking in.
    “It’s crazy,” Claxton coach Eric Bluestein said. “We’re even younger this year. We didn’t have a great start, but we’re a much better team now than we were a few months ago.”
    Claxton’s 12-13 record won’t instill fear into most — including No. 3 seed and first round opponent Turner County — but that is a potential trap that the Tigers are happy to set.
    The Tigers gave region champion Treutlen all that it wanted in last week’s tournament and has played close games with Portal and Calvary Day — both of which figure to make deep playoff runs.
    The first round of the Class A girls bracket will be played out on Monday, with the boys following Tuesday evening.
    If all things go according to plan for the Portal and Claxton boys, another area showdown will be on the docket. The winners of each school’s first round games will advance to play each other for the right to move on to the state semifinals.
    The winner in the girls game between Claxton and Portal will face either Emanuel County Institute or Dooly County.

    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.