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Portal hosts Statesboro in softball opener for both teams

    PORTAL — School has been in session for just a little over one week, but the softball teams from Portal and Statesboro are ready to jump on the diamond as both teams begin their 2012 regular season this afternoon at 5 p.m. in Portal.
    Official practices didn’t begin until Aug. 1, so both teams have had to rush to get their lineups straight for their first game. As if the tight schedule wasn’t enough, both squads have also had to battle the weather.
    “It’s been a challenge,” said Portal assistant coach Tendai Haggins. “Between the rain and the new rules regarding heat, there have only been a couple of full days of practice. We’re just doing our best and I’m sure we’ll continue to prepare and experiment after the season starts.”
    The Lady Panthers will try to avenge last year’s season opening loss to the Lady Blue Devils.
    In fact, Portal will be doing its best to make a statement in many of its games as the Panthers try to shake off last season’s winless performance in Region 3-A competition.
    The Panthers will look to seasoned veterans like Chansley Parker and Mary Lane — both entering their fourth season — for stability and leadership while a large contingent of underclassmen get up to speed.
    Kenya Huff will be relied upon to provide the pop in the middle of the Panthers’ batting order while big things are expected from freshman catcher Caitlyn Girardeau.
    Portal’s opening day guests have also seen some tough times over the last few seasons and have taken some more hits before today’s first pitch is thrown.
    Kyera Whitaker and Sarah Brown both figured to be big pieces in Statesboro’s plans, but both are sidelined with injuries. Whitaker tore an ACL in Statesboro’s loss in the second round of the state basketball playoffs in March. Brown also went down with an ACL tear while playing softball this summer. Whitaker is out until at least the end of August while Brown is lost for the season.
    “Certainly, it’s a big hit for us,” SHS coach Jim Simmons said. “Not only are they two very talented players, but we were expecting them to play some key positions.”
    The Devils have the benefit of playing almost a dozen games before their Region 3-AAAA schedule begins. During those games, Statesboro will shuffle in different players at shortstop to find Brown’s replacement and will also look at several catchers to hold down the fort until Whitaker’s return.
    Sophomore pitcher Kristen Kingery will try to steady the ship until the Devils settle on a defensive alignment. Kingery quickly proved herself to be a reliable arm as the Devils’ No. 2 starter last season and now bumps into the No. 1 role after the graduation of Lauren Hadden.
    “We’re very encouraged by the progress (Kingery) has made since last season,” Simmons said. “The key is consistency. We just need her to throw strikes and go after hitters. We need to get solid pitching and good defense if we want to compete.”
    Kingery will take the ball for Statesboro this afternoon while Portal will likely turn to Kimberly Phelps.

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