By MIKE ANTHONY and HORACE HOLLOMAN
As prep baseball’s regular season came to a close last week, the Portal Panthers were a desperate team.
Needing to finish in the top-16 of the GHSA’s final Class A power poll to make the state playoff field, the Panthers entered last week at No. 19. Portal did all it could, crushing Liberty County before upsetting seventh-ranked Claxton to close out its schedule.
That effort came up just short as the Panthers finished just one one-hundredth of a point out of the playoff race, but had a bone to pick with Lanier County, which ended up in the No. 15 slot.
The Bulldogs were originally scheduled to play Claxton in their regular season finale last Friday, but cancelled at the last minute. Lanier County then scheduled a game with Early County — an inferior team on paper — for the next day, only to see that contest rained out.
After the final power poll was released, the Bulldogs’ skipped game against Claxton had paid off. A loss would have been enough to drop Lanier County out of the playoffs.
According to the Georgia High School Association website, Lanier County finished the season with an 8.87 power ranking. If the Panthers had neglected to play one of their final games against Metter, Portal would have finished the season with a 8.97 power ranking.
“I’m still proud of my team and what they were able to accomplish,” said Panthers’ baseball coach Dennis Moore. “We played well at the end, but it just wasn’t enough. We played in some close games that could have gone either way, but that’s life.”
Despite the team focusing mostly on what could have been, there were still some hard feelings. Portal had played some unnecessary games against talented teams and through tough weather, playing all 24 of the games on its original schedule.
Feeling that Lanier County had ducked an opponent for the sole purpose of benefitting in the rankings, Portal attempted to bring the matter to the attention of the GHSA.
The Panthers filed a formal appeal, stating that the cancelled game should have been ruled a forfeit on Lanier County’s behalf since it had notified Claxton that it wouldn’t be playing despite no bad weather or other extenuating circumstances that would warrant a cancellation.
“We did make an appeal explaining that there’s a way to manipulate the system,” Karen Doty, Principal of Portal High School said. “We thought that (the appeal) was something that made sense to us.”
But the appeal committee responded that it had no grounds to force Lanier County and Claxton to play, nor could it pass judgment on any reason cited for the cancellation of the game.
“It was definitely tough, and the kids took it very hard,” said Doty, who wrote the official appeal. “I guess it’s part of the game and people know that, so they try to find loopholes to benefit their team.”
GHSA’s official statement to Portal’s appeal stated, “Since there is no provision for matters of this nature the appeal was denied.” However, GHSA’s official Rules and Regulations guidelines under Criteria for Selection for State Playoffs states, “This Committee shall have the authority to make all rulings necessary and be prepared to apply the intent of the rules governing the state playoffs and any situations which may not be covered by the rules.”
“The crux of (Portal’s) argument was grounded in the cancelled game,” GHSA Associate Director and Director of Officiating Ernie Yarbrough said. “Baseball is unique from sports like football and basketball where there are game contracts signed and that must be fulfilled.”
Yarbrough added that, without any contract in place between Claxton and Lanier County, the GHSA had no recourse to rule in Portal’s favor.
“With the rain last week, a lot of teams were moving games around, trying to play out their region schedules. If this had been a region game, it would have had to be played. Since it wasn’t, there are no rules saying when a team can add or subtract a non-region game from its schedule.”
In a candid phone interview with Claxton athletic director Mark Stroud Thursday, Stroud said Lanier County called to cancel the game. When asked if any explanation was given to him as to the reason behind the cancellation Stroud stated, “They told me they were looking to gain points in the rankings by playing a lesser opponent. I mean that’s pretty much it...that’s what it was.”
Aside from the cancelled game, this was another sore spot for Portal. Even if both the Claxton and Early County games were never played and didn’t factor into the final rankings, the Panthers saw Lanier County’s willingness to cancel one game while scrambling to schedule another as enough proof of toying with the ratings for the appeals committee to take action in order to preserve a level playing field.
Adding even more fuel to the potential fire was the fact that the coaches of Claxton and Lanier County — Andy and Kenny Yenzetich, respectively — are brothers. Also, Claxton may have been better off not playing as a loss to Lanier could have dropped it two or more places in the power poll, ensuring that the Tigers would have to begin the playoffs with a road series.
But, in the end, the appeals committee deferred to the unenforceability of a non-region game with no set contract, leaving the Panthers that miniscule — and yet incredibly vast — .01 points away from the postseason.
A trip to the state playoffs would have been the Panthers first state playoff appearance since 2007. Despite finishing the year 12-12 with back-to-back wins at the end of the season, Portal will be on the outside looking in as the state playoffs are set to begin.
“I’ve talked to the kids and the coach and they’re pretty heart-broken. They thought they were going to make history here by getting to the state playoffs,” Doty said. “We were really hoping it would have worked out for them.”