PORTAL – As the Portal Panthers tucked themselves into bed on the night of Sept. 16, there wasn’t a whole lot to be excited about on the football field. The Panthers had just suffered a 14-0 defeat to Johnson County in their first sub-region contest and had given up leads the previous two weeks in another pair of losses.
But then the tide began to turn.
Where tough luck was striking, the bounces started to go Portal’s way. Where crucial plays had been allowed before, the Panthers started coming up big. The last five games have all resulted in wins and Portal now stands just one victory away from its first trip to the state playoffs since 2006.
“There is just no quit in this team,” said Portal coach David NeSmith. “We have had to face plenty of adversity. There have been quite a few times where we could have gotten down on ourselves, but that’s not what these kids do. They just keep fighting and its turning into wins.”
Early losses aside, there weren’t many that thought the Region 3-A play-in round was even a possibility for Portal this season.
Back in May, Cherard Freeman – who guided the Panthers to a 3-7 mark in 2010 – was replaced by NeSmith. The move brought in Portal’s third head coach in as many seasons and caused the Panthers to miss out on spring practice.
Undaunted, NeSmith got his plan in order and set to work on building the program back into a contender.
“We started this back in June with our summer workouts,” said NeSmith. “We have a lot of guys that have bought in from that start and that have given us a great effort every day.
“Our motto is to finish strong. We try to do that each game and we’re also trying to be stronger at the end of the season than we were at the beginning.”
That motto showed itself last month as the Panthers stunned Emanuel County Institute – then ranked No. 3 in the state – on the Bulldogs’ homecoming. The Panthers built an early lead – exactly the kind of thing that had led to previous letdowns – but they withstood the ECI comeback attempt and finished off their rival for the upset.
Since then, it has been more of the same. Portal survived tough tests against Jenkins County and Wheeler County, then overcame some questionable calls last week to stop Treutlen a yard short of the end zone to preserve a 21-14 win and keep the streak alive.
“When we called for a timeout, I looked in our players’ eyes,” said NeSmith. “Just looking at them, you know that they’re ready to keep fighting and to make sure that the job gets done. That’s something I’m proud of – something I’m not sure was there at the beginning of the season.”
It has been a fun couple of months for the Panthers, but the fact remains that every game from here is a do-or-die situation.
Portal travels to Calvary Day Friday night. The winner will go on to the state playoffs, while the loser is done for the season.
“We’re having a great time right now,” said NeSmith. “I don’t think any of us are ready to be done just yet.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.