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Portal hits hardwood for season opener
Portal's Trent Thomas dunks over Stewart County's Corderro Ponder in the final seconds of the Panthers' win in the first round of last season's state playoffs. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    Plenty of area basketball teams have already taken to the court in their first games of the 2014-15 season, but the boys and girls of Portal will finally tip things off tonight as both squads travel to Montgomery County.
    The Portal boys are looking to continue a trend of excellence, but will have to do so by utilizing plenty of fresh faces.
    Portal made a run to the state semifinals two seasons ago and advanced to the quarterfinals last year. Ending with last season’s run were the careers of four Panthers who had amassed a 90-28 record during their tenure.
    Trent Thomas returns from last season’s squad and could easily find himself in the running for Region 3-A Player of the Year by the time all is said and done, but will have to lead four new starters this time around.
    “I think that we had a good summer leading up to this season,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “We were able to get out there and play and get used to each other. That’s going to be big for us early on this season. Maybe there will be some losses while new guys get comfortable, but the important thing is that we learn to play as a team. That’s what we’ll need later in the season.”
    The Panthers have never been known for their size, but this season’s team will find itself staring up at opponents even more than usual. Just a few Panthers crack the 6-foot barrier, but that could be mitigated by the team’s preferred style of play.
    “We’re a running team,” Brannen said. “We always like to get out and run. We’ve never been blessed with a lot of height, so our guys are used to playing against bigger competition.”
    Thomas will be a focal point of both the offense and defense. He’ll be joined by a few holdovers from last season, but returners like Tyler Budgett and B.J. Prescott will be settling into new starting positions instead of playing the bit roles that they were counted on for last season.
    Another returning player — from two years ago — is junior guard Akeem Oglesby.
    As a freshman, Oglesby earned a role on the varsity squad as a dangerous long-range shooter. Oglesby transferred to Statesboro High last season, but is now back in Portal and will once again try to rain down 3s for the Panthers.
    “We need some shooting,” Brannen said. “It goes both ways. If Trent and B.J. draw a lot of attention inside, we need to kick it out and hit shots. If we can make some outside shots, it frees up our inside game.”
    Portal’s region once again promises to be one of the toughest in all of Class A, but a non-region schedule loaded with five teams from higher classifications could give the Panthers an extra boost when the playoff brackets are seeded at the end of the season.
    The state playoffs will also be on the minds of the Lady Panthers, who will be looking to make their third consecutive trip after a long absence.
    Head coach Cliff Hubbard helped to begin the current run of success, but faces some big shoes to fill in his third season.
    “We have some losses,” Hubbard said. “Shiann Hagins isn’t a girl that you can just replace and neither is Breyonna Raymond. That’s going to change how we approach the game a little bit and our girls for this season will have to adjust to that.”
    While some girls have moved on, returners like Chandalier Morgan and Tia Hagins have powered the Lady Panthers to their newfound success and have no intentions of stopping now.
    Tiffany Harlow will also be a welcome return to the Lady Panthers’ backcourt, but might require a few games to get up to speed after missing the final run-up to the regular season due to injury.
    All older Panthers will have to guide a new group of young players that brings good size and athleticism, but that lacks the knowledge and familiarity with varsity competition that was there last season.
    “You could see our older girls working hard with the younger girls during the summer,” Hubbard said. “Summer is where you try to grow and where wins aren’t as important. I think we took some big steps, but there is still more growing to do.”
    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.