PORTAL — The first win is always the hardest.
At least that’s what Portal is hoping after a comeback in the final minutes of last Friday’s game in Millen notched a 29-26 victory over Jenkins County for the Panthers’ first win of the season and the first of Cherard Freeman’s head coaching career.
Portal (1-6, 1-3 Region 3-A) needs to get right back in gear this week as it travels to Wheeler County (2-5, 1-3) for a game that has — wait for it — postseason implications.
Despite the rocky start, last week’s region victory kept the Panthers in the hunt for one of the top four spots in the West subregion of 3-A. In the final week of the regular season, the top teams will square off against each other in a play-in round to determine which schools will represent the region in the state playoffs.
Portal will need to win its final two games to earn a spot, but now that they know that they can succeed, the Panthers are ready to extend the season as long as possible.
“I’ve spent a lot of this week drilling that into their heads,” said Freeman of his team. “We took a big step forward as a team and as a program last week. We’re happy about the win, but there’s still a lot of football to play and we want to try to win these next two games and keep going.”
This week is as good an opportunity as any for the Panthers to stay hot.
The Bulldogs began their region schedule with a win over Jenkins County, but have since lost three straight, including lopsided losses to Treutlen and Johnson County.
The Portal offense — which put forth its biggest scoring output by far last week — could have another big night. Wheeler County’s defense has been prone to big plays, and has given up 19 or more points in its last five games.
Of course, with the Panthers’ triple-option attack, execution will be the biggest factor.
“(Junior quarterback) Hunter Oglesby had a great game with his reads last week,” said Freeman. “I think it’s finally starting to click for us. It was easy to see how much more confidence the offense had at practice this week now that we’ve proven that we can make things work during a game.”
Defensively, Friday night could look a lot like most practices for Portal.
The Bulldogs also employ the triple option, and with many teams in Region 3-A preferring a power run or spread set, Wheeler offers a much more familiar look for the Panthers to adjust to.
“It definitely helps with preparation,” said Freeman. “A lot of the plays are very similar. Our defense is well aware of what to expect out of those sets, but the same holds true for Wheeler. Whichever team executes best will have the upper hand.
“We’re a couple of schools with small enrollments, but a lot of heart. Wheeler has a few more seniors and maybe some more experience, but our guys have had a great week of practice and we can’t wait to get back on the field and try for another win.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.