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Portal, ECI to face off in Twin City

Portal (0-3) at
No. 8 ECI (3-1)
7:30 p.m., Today
Twin City

    PORTAL — The Portal Panthers got a much-needed rest last week, but jump right back into the fire tonight as they travel to Twin City to take on No. 8 Emanuel County Institute.
    The Panthers (0-3) will be decided underdogs when they take the field against the Bulldogs (3-1), but a similar situation last season led to a stretch run for the Panthers. Portal struggled early in 2011 before it shocked ECI —then ranked No. 4 — and won its next four games to advance to within a game of the state playoffs.
    “It’s a new season and a new situation,” said Portal coach David NeSmith. “But we’ve still talked about last season. That win was a shot in the arm for us and really got us going. It will be a tough task again, but all we can do is go out and play our best game.”
    The Panthers’ best game is still a work in progress. Even though Portal has three games under its belt, the fact remains that the majority of players that it is depending on are still just freshmen and sophomores who are settling in to varsity action.
    Last season’s upset was keyed by the Panthers’ ability to control the line of scrimmage, possessing and moving the football on offense while slowing down the Bulldogs’ great ground game when on defense.
    That same size and strength isn’t there this time around, so the Panthers are in search of another way.
    “We can’t just line up and try to run over people right now,” said NeSmith. “We’ve added some more option and we’re trying to find other ways to move the ball. We know what we still want to do, but we have to find what works right now.”
    Even if the Panthers get their offense rolling, there is still the matter of stopping ECI.
    Caleb Pressey heads up a dangerous Bulldog offense with his ability to throw the ball or tuck it and run. Greg Purcell, Michael Sutton and Renaldo Williams provide an even bigger threat coming out of the backfield.
    ECI has already topped the 40-point mark twice this season and has its sights set on its seventh consecutive season of nine or more wins.
    “There’s no doubt that ECI is a talented team,” said NeSmith. “Coach (Chris) Kearson has done a great job these last couple of years and they have so many guys that can hurt you. I’m sure they also would like to get us back a little bit for last season.”
    Despite both schools playing in Region 3-A, the teams will look like night and day on the sidelines. ECI routinely tops 50 players while a small beginning roster size and a rash of injuries have limited Portal to just over 20.
    The Panthers will once again ask the majority of their players to never leave the field — playing offense, defense and special teams — but Mother Nature is finally offering some reprieve.
    “The weather cooling down really helps a team in our situation,” said NeSmith. “When it feels like 125 degrees out there and we can’t get anyone a break, it’s just about unbearable. Now that it’s cooler, hopefully we’ll have a little more energy late in games. It definitely helped us last season. We’ll see if we can continue that trend.”

    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.