For the Portal Panthers, there is nowhere to go but up.
Last season, the Panthers broke fall camp with just eight players who had been a part of the 2011 squad that nearly won its sub-region. A total lack of experience, small roster size, and an epidemic of injuries paved the way for nine straight losses before the Panthers pulled out their lone win in the season finale.
As rough as the road was last year, the 2013 Panthers are showing no ill effects.
“Everything has been running smoothly so far,” Portal coach David NeSmith. “We’ve been battling the heat and the weather like everyone else, but we’ve had some very good days of practice lately.”
During 2012, plenty of freshmen and sophomores endured a baptism by fire as a sheer lack of numbers forced them into action — many times at positions that weren’t familiar to them. This year’s Panthers are still a very young group, but should be much more prepared for action.
Of course, the schedule won’t be doing Portal any favors.
After shifting from the Western sub-division of Region 3-A over to the east last season, the Panthers find themselves among some of the biggest heavyweights in all of Class A. Savannah Christian and Emanuel County Institute — both with state titles in the last six years — pay a visit to Portal this season, as will Calvary Day, which spent most of last season in the top-10 polls.
“It’s definitely going to be a tough season,” NeSmith said. “We know that there are some very good teams that we have to face week in and week out. “
The road won’t be easy, but the Panthers are up for the challenge.
Leading the way will be junior quarterback Evan Street. Called into permanent duty just over a quarter into his high school career, Street has done a good job of learning on the fly. With the Panthers’ wishbone running attack now mastered, there is no doubting Street’s importance to his team.
“Evan is like having another coach on the field,” NeSmith said. “It’s always good to have experienced players and it’s huge to have a guy like Evan at quarterback.”
Street will also have some returning help on offense as Casey Jones heads up the backfield and Jameson Mikell highlights an offensive line that should be more effective this season.
Portal’s current roster is hovering around 36. That is much better than last year, but will still require plenty of ingenuity.
Much of the increased roster size is due to rising freshmen and first-time players, meaning that veterans will continue to pull double duty on offense and defense while backups learn the ropes.
“With Portal, the roster will always be a challenge,” NeSmith said. “Preparing our guys is also a challenge. We have to get them ready to go both ways and play good offense and defense, but you also don’t want to get anyone hurt or worn out.
“That’s a challenge that we’ve overcome before. We’re hoping to do it again. We have a group of guys who are committed to improving over last season and that’s what we’ll be working towards this week and throughout the season.”
Portal will get its first real test Friday night in a scrimmage against Twiggs County.
Twiggs will come into the scrimmage with a much bigger and deeper team — a disadvantage that the Panthers are used to facing.
But Portal welcomes the test. The Panthers will face another season of being an underdog, but they are determined to prove that they belong on the field with anyone.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.