By MIKE ANTHONY
PORTAL — In a season that has been forgettable for both the Portal Panthers and Claxton Tigers, one team will at least have a bit of momentum heading into the offseason.
With both squads battling roster size and health issues — and with both competing in a very tough Region 3-A — Portal and Claxton have stumbled their way into identical 0-8 marks. Each team will try to avoid a winless season tonight at The Grove when the Panthers and Tigers kickoff at 7:30 p.m.
“It's been a grind,” Portal coach Matt Smith said. “The schedule has been crazy for both games and practices and we've had to play some really highly-rated teams all in a row.
“Claxton is a team that is probably more on our level. They're in the same situation as us. They're struggling as well, but we know we're going to have to play with the same intensity we do against the top teams in the region if we want to get a win.”
The Panthers have spent much of their season trading punches with heavily favored teams early in games, only to look on as fatigue sets in for their players — most of whom play in all phases of the game — and opponents run away with victory after victory.
Tonight could finally be the night for the Panthers to break through as the Tigers haven't been in many of their contests at any point in the game.
Last week's 20-6 defeat against Savannah Country Day was, by far, the Tigers' best performance of the season. Before that, Claxton had scored more than seven points in a game just twice and hadn't held any team under 35.
Overall, the Tigers are allowing an average of 42.1 points per game. Putting up a number like that could be a bit of a stretch for the Panthers, who themselves have been far from an offensive force. Portal hasn't been shut out this season (Claxton has been blanked twice), but the Panthers are averaging just 10 points per game.
“The key has been consistency,” Smith said. “We haven't had a lot of it this season. We're struggling to create chances for our offense and we've had some unfortunate turnovers the times where we have had something going.”
Craig Ware will be the center of attention for Portal tonight. The junior running back has often been the Panthers' biggest threat with the ball in his hands. Ware broke off two touchdown runs of over 50 yards in last week's game against Savannah Christian and will be looking for more of the same against a vulnerable Claxton defense.
Tonight's game is just the ninth of the season for both teams, but will be the last. Due to Hurricane Matthew and the subsequent long-term closings of Region 3-A schools in the Savannah area, nearly two full weeks of the schedule were lost.
Makeup games have led to everything from 11 a.m. kickoffs to Tuesday night games. As a final measure to play all originally scheduled games, tonight's slate of action — originally meant to feature inter-divisional games based on region standings — is being used to complete previously postponed games, meaning all Region 3-A teams will end the regular season having played nine games.