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Panthers are primed
portal web
Portal head football coach Matt Smith gives freshman running back Brian Ware some stern instructions during practice Wednesday.

    Lost in the conversation of Statesboro, Southeast Bulloch and Bulloch Academy here in the city, Portal High School kicked off its season as well this week — and perhaps has the most interesting story of them all.
    It’s been no secret Portal has been in a success drought over the past ten seasons. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006. The team is also without a winning record since 2011 and all of that doesn’t even include the recent internal turmoil the program has experienced.
    The seniors on this year’s Portal team have had three head coaches. First they had David Nesmith in a 3-6-1 2013 season, and then the group endured a tumultuous 3-7 2014 season under Jon Willoughby — which went into the beginning of last season until he was relieved of his duties after a controversy with administration.
    Now in steps Matt Smith, the former Statesboro assistant and alumni who took over in the preseason of 2015 to salvage a 2-8 record. With a full year under his belt and a full summer in his own weight program, Smith is confident Portal is ready to turn over a new leaf.
    “From Nesmith to Willoughby, we have had a lot of adversity to deal with,” said senior lineman Ethan Daughtry. “Coach Smith has helped guide us through that.”
    Smith is coming into a favorable situation this year. He has over 40 players on his team this season — an impressive number for one of Georgia's smallest football-playing schools. He gets five senior offensive linemen back and a good group of skill position players. However Smith insists his team still has a ways to go before they can sniff success.
    “Summer workouts went really well and our attendance was up to 30 kids a day,” Smith said. “Even though we’ve gotten a lot stronger over the past months, I still think we can do better.”
    Players have noted that while Smith does expect a lot of them, they don’t feel as much negative pressure as in other years. Smith has brought a relaxed environment to the weight room and practice field that makes players more comfortable.
    “He won’t let you off easy, that’s for sure,” said senior quarterback Jake Brown. “But he understands us kids will make mistakes. It’s a more teaching environment.”
    Much like the other GHSA schools in the area, Portal’s region will undergo some changes in 2016. The Panthers are still in Region 3-A, but familiar foe Jenkins County moves over to the western sub-region and is replaced by McIntosh County Academy, which is moving down from Class AA.
    “Emmanuel County Institute is still the class of the region,” Smith said. “Savannah Christian and Calvary Day will be teams that can go deep in the playoffs too. So those are the teams we look at as the best competition.”
    All three aforementioned teams will be on Portal’s schedule, with ECI being on the road. Coach Smith won’t be alone on his efforts though, as he’s added two more coaches to his staff to handle his big numbers this season.
    “Traditionally this school's wins and losses aren’t where they need to be,” Smith said. “But there’s a great deal of pride within our staff, this team and this community. We’re just excited to get the season started.”
    The Panthers will be in game action for the first time, tonight when they’ll scrimmage Warren County in a jamboree at Albert Massey Field at 7:30 p.m. In two weeks, Portal will scrimmage at Southeast Bulloch before opening their season Aug. 26 at home against Treutlen.

    Chris Stanley may be reached at (912) 489-9408.