Portal (1-3-1) at Claxton (3-2, 1-0)
Friday, 7:30 p.m.
CLAXTON — For half a decade, the Claxton Tigers have been a promising underdog story with a tragic ending.
In four consecutive seasons, the Tigers advanced to the Region 3-A play-in game — just one win away from clinching a berth in the state playoffs. Four straight times, the Tigers were denied.
Last season, Claxton compiled a 6-3 record before winning its regular season finale. Thanks to the new power poll system responsible for selecting Class A state playoff participants, the Tigers were once again left on the outside looking in.
This season didn’t start off with much promise of changing the norm. Claxton dropped a tough 9-6 season opener to rival Tattnall County. Two weeks later, Emanuel County administered a 32-14 beating.
Then, the winds began to shift.
“We didn’t get off to the best start,” Claxton coach Patrick Hendrix said. “We didn’t play the way we wanted to against Tattnall and the ECI game was definitely a tough one. But we have a group of kids that didn’t get down on themselves and continued to work hard to get better.”
Sporting just a 1-2 record through the first three weeks, Claxton has rattled off two consecutive victories.
A 3-2 record won’t turn many heads, but the Tigers’ upset of sixth-ranked Savannah Christian last week has put them back in control of their own destiny.
“Savannah Christian has beat up on most of the region for a few years,” Hendrix said. “To beat them, and to do it on their field, was huge. Hopefully we can hang on to that momentum and keep raising that level of play.”
With the upset, Claxton moved to No. 14 in the latest Class A public school power poll. Any teams winning their region championship will earn a spot in the 16-team field, with the top remaining teams in the power poll filling out the rest of the bracket.
Four winnable games — including a showdown with Portal Friday night — are on the horizon for Claxton, with a to-be-determined opponent awaiting in the final regular season game.
For all of the seasons where the Tigers have fallen just short of the postseason, the 2013 campaign might not have seemed like the one that would break the mold.
Not only did 2012 leading rusher Zach Grant transfer into the Statesboro school season, but Cornelius Taylor also moved in from his spot at receiver to try and command the offense from under center.
The Tigers seem to have taken a few early lumps, but also look like a team that has gained an identity and a winning plan.
Portal will pose a tough test for the homecoming crowd at the Grove Friday night, but wins in at least four of its last five games will likely be enough to make this Claxton team the first to reach the playoffs since 2007.
“We had to make some changes going into this season, but I think we’re in a good spot,” Hendrix said. “(Taylor) had some reps at quarterback before and is doing a good job for us. I think everyone is comfortable with what we’re doing and is confident that we can win. We’ve had a few big wins, so we just have to keep on improving and see where we go.”
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.