PORTAL — The weather has finally cooled down, but the Portal Panthers are heating up.
Six consecutive losses to start the season did away with the Panthers’ playoff hopes, but they have worked through the adversity to win two of their last three in the first year of head coach Cherard Freeman and his triple option offense. Now, the Panthers will have one more game to close out the season as they welcome in Bryan County.
In fact, it was only a tiebreaker that prevented Portal (2-7, 2-4 Region 3-A) from reaching the region play-in round. The Panthers’ 7-6 win over Treutlen last week put them in a three-way tie with Treutlen and Wheeler County for the final play-in spot, but Wheeler was the only team of the three to win a non-region game against a single-A opponent to earn the tiebreaker.
“Losing out on the tiebreaker was a little disappointing, but we’re pleased with the strides that we’ve made this season,” said Freeman. “It’s been a few years since Portal’s been able to get a second win, but now we want to go out and get a third.”
Tonight, the rebuilding Panthers will face off against the team that has given them the most support over the last few years. Portal won just three times from 2007-2009, but two of those victories came against the Redskins (0-9, 0-5).
Bryan County — which is going through a coaching change and an offensive scheme switch of its own — has had a much more difficult time adjusting. The Redskins have scored more than seven points just once this season and have lost five games by more than 20 points.
Bryan’s struggles aside, the X’s and O’s of its game plan could be the biggest edge for Portal tonight. The Indians employ a spread attack and like to put five wide receivers on the field in many of their sets. Only one other team in the region runs many of those looks – the same Treutlen Vikings squad that Portal stifled last week.
“Our defense had a great game,” said Freeman. “And we’ll need to do it again. Bryan runs the same offense and defense as Treutlen, so a lot of our game planning will remain the same, and it’s definitely an advantage to see the same thing for a second week.”
Offensively, the Panthers will continue their labored work of mastering the triple option.
Portal has shown many signs of progress in the system, but a small roster and a rash of injuries have added a steep rise to the learning curve.
Portal should be aided by the return of quarterback Hunter Oglesby, who was forced out of last week’s game at halftime with a hip injury.
“Hunter has come a long way with his reads and with running the offense,” said Freeman. “He’s a perfect fit for this offense. Hunter is a tough kid. He got a little dinged up last week, but he’ll be good to go tonight.”
While tonight’s game — regardless of its outcome — won’t lead to any more action for the Panthers this season, it is one more opportunity for Portal to continue its turnaround.
“I’ve really been impressed with the character that our guys have shown,” said Freeman. “Every week, we’ve shown up to practice ready to improve. We already have guys who are talking about getting back into the weight room and getting better next season, so I think that this program is in a good spot.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.