PORTAL — Last season figured to be a rebuilding year for the Portal boys. Their top three scorers from the 2009-10 season had graduated and the Panthers were coming off of a controversial season that saw four wins forfeited and a first round exit from the Region 3-A tournament.
A handful of freshmen and sophomores were tasked with getting Portal back on track – something that they accomplished in impressive fashion as the Panthers clinched a spot in the GHSA state playoffs.
This season, the Panthers have loftier goals in mind as an established core returns with an impressive showing in the Class-A tournament on their minds.
“I think we took some big steps during the summer,” said Portal coach Jeff Brannen. “Some of our young guys from last year matured a lot both physically and mentally. I think we’re in a good place moving into the season.”
Leading the charge will be a sharp-shooting pair of sophomores. Last season, Stacy Morgan burst onto the scene. The freshman proved he belonged on the court with players two and three years his senior and fellow freshman Robert Lee came on strong in the final month of the season.
This season, the pair will team with juniors Treston White and Shaun Hagins to make up one of the quickest backcourts in the region.
Down in the post, the Panthers will be similarly talented, but vertically challenged. Isiah Rich and Corey Reese — neither taller than 6-foot-2 — were slated to start, but an injury to Rich in Portal’s scrimmage Tuesday could keep him out of action until around January.
Joseph Lockley will step in for Rich, but other options are also available.
“We’ll do whatever is necessary,” Brannen said. “Honestly, we have enough good guards that we might have five of them in the game at one time.”
That certainly fits into the game plan for the Panthers. Size was an issue last year as well, but Portal countered by keeping games loose, running down the floor, and not allowing taller teams to stifle play by falling into too many half-court sets.
“All of our guys handle the ball pretty well,” Brannen said. “We’re confident with all of them running the floor. We’ll try to press the pace and force other teams to try to keep up.”
For the time being, Brannen stated that his main concern is preparing everyone for the region schedule. The balance of power is shifting and the Panthers’ sub-region rivals on the west side of the region figure to contend with the Savannah Schools and Claxton from the east.
“We want to peak at the right time,” Brannen said. “It’s nice to win games early, but the important part is to be going strong late in the season.”
Lady Panthers rebuilding
While the Portal boys are aiming high, the Lady Panthers are trying to get back on the right track.
Last season, the Portal girls struggled to a mark of just 4-19. Making things worse, four seniors —including three starters — are gone and Todd Gilchrist enters for his first season as head coach.
Gilchrist has had his work cut out, especially considering that his duties as a football coach have kept him from being fully involved with the team, save for the last couple of weeks.
“It’s a small window,” Gilchrist said. “Right now, we’re still in a stage where we’re kind of feeling things out. There are a lot of new girls this season and I’m still trying to see where our strong points and weak points will be.”
The Lady Panthers will boast 13 players this season, but only because there won’t be a J.V. squad. As such, all of Portal’s freshmen will be tested at the varsity level when they make it onto the court.
Portal’s schedule does it no favors as they share a sub-region with Emanuel County Institute, which will be a heavy favorite to take the region title and do even more damage in the state tournament.
“Right now, our biggest focus is on preparing ourselves,” Gilchrist said. “We have to use our practice time and early games to see where we can improve. We’ll make some mistakes — every team will. The goal is to recognize them and not make the same mistakes later on that we make right now.
“We’ll be tested, but the important part is going out and giving our best effort. That’s the only way to get better.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.