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Portal looks to build on last season's Final Four run

    PORTAL – Not satisfied with a trip to the Final Four last season, the Portal Panthers boys basketball team has big dreams for the 2013-14 season which tips off tonight against Montgomery County.
    The Panthers have carried a winning tradition from season to season for over a decade, but also brings most of last season’s cast back to the court. Three starters return, along with a solid, experienced bench and a pair of newcomers to give the Panthers a great chance at repeating last year’s success.
    “We definitely think that we can be pretty good,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “We played about 40 games over the summer. Our guys have come up together and are really comfortable with their roles, so we hope that we can hit our stride from the start.
    “We made it a point to play some big teams on some big stages over the summer. We’ve also got a tough regular season schedule, so I don’t think we’ll shy away from anything.”
    Portal returns its biggest weapon as Stacey Morgan returns for his final season as a Panther. Morgan burst onto the scene as a high-flying freshman guard and hasn’t lost steam since, easily eclipsing the career 1,000-point mark last season.
    Joining Morgan are fellow upperclassmen Robert Lee, Marquise Wells and Keyantae Robinson. With plenty of scoring options and the ability to fly up and down the court in transition, the Panthers once again figure to be a tough team to contend with when all cylinders are firing.
    Adding even more to the arsenal this season is the addition of Trent Thomas and Harrison Sherrod to the front court.
    Previous Panther squads have sorely lacked size and have depended upon grit and hustle to contend for rebounds and inside scoring. With both Thomas and Sherrod listed at 6-foot-3, Portal will easily stand a bit taller this season.
    “I think we’ll be able to go inside a little more and should definitely contend more for rebounds,” Brannen said. “But our game plan really doesn’t change. We want to play good, hard defense, then get up the court quick and find open shots.”
    Portal figures to be the early season favorite to clinch a third straight Region 3-A title, but the region remains stacked with talent. Jenkins County fell to Portal in the region championship game before making its own Final Four run and both Calvary Day and Claxton pose big threats with a wealth of athleticism filling both rosters.
    “It’s important to stay focused,” Brannen said. “This region is a grind. We’ve got talent, but we’re going to have to play our best against a lot of these teams.”

Girls look to pick up where they left off
    In the span of just one season, the Portal girls squad went from perennial cellar dwellers in Region 3-A to a dark horse state playoff squad. Under first-year head coach Cliff Hubbard, the Panthers racked up 11 wins, easily surpassing the total of the previous three seasons, combined.
    Looking to keep the momentum going, Portal has kept itself busy over the summer.
    “We’ve just played a lot of games,” Hubbard said. “We wanted to see everything we could. We played teams from all different levels and with different styles, just to get an idea of how we have to play against different teams.”
    Portal won’t be sneaking up on any of its opponents this season, but has the talent to put together another run to the postseason.
    Leading the way will be senior Shiann Hagins, who has been selected as All-Region in each of her first three seasons. Gloria Wiggins joins Hagins as the only other senior on the squad and adds an outside scoring threat while Hagins looks to continue last season’s double-double average. Both should have plenty of space to roam on offense as SEB transfer Tiffany Harlow takes over as point guard.
    Breyonna Raymond and Chandelier Morgan both showed flashes of promise last season, but were victims of a rash of injuries that struck the Panthers throughout the final month of the season.
    “So far, so good as far as injuries are concerned,” Hubbard said. “Hopefully we can stay a little healthier this season. It’s a long season and we play in a tough region, but I think we can continue to win.”

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