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Portal looks to build on momentum

    PORTAL ­— With wins in each of its last three games, Portal has found itself at the top of the sub-region standings. Tonight, the Panthers (4-3, 3-1 Region 3-A) will try to stay on the right track as it hosts Wheeler County at 7:30 p.m.
    Just two seasons removed from back-to-back-to-back 1-9 campaigns, the Panthers are in position to earn a state playoff berth for the first time since 2006.
    Despite the stellar region record, both Johnson County and Emanuel County Institute — which the Panthers upset two weeks ago — still lead Portal in tiebreakers. Even if the Panthers win out, they may be faced with a No. 3 seed and forced to go on the road for the region play-in round.
    Still Portal is focused on all of the positives.
    “All we can do is win the games that we get to play,” said Portal coach David NeSmith. “Johnson County and ECI might end up higher in the standings, but the important thing is that we control our own destiny. If we keep winning, we’ll get to keep playing.”
    That plan will be challenged tonight as the Panthers go up against the Bulldogs (4-3, 2-2) who are trying desperately to stay in the hunt for the postseason. Wheeler County kept its play-in hopes alive with a win over Montgomery County last week, but with Portal, Johnson County and ECI tied at the top, the Bulldogs need at least one more win to assure themselves of the final play-in spot out of the sub-region.
    Stopping the Bulldog offense will be a new challenge for the Panthers as Wheeler  County runs a flexbone triple-option attack that Portal hasn’t seen yet this season. The Panthers ran the same offense themselves last season, but might don’t remember all of the ins and outs of the scheme as it was run for just one season.
    “We’ve got some guys that remember how to run it and defend it,” said NeSmith. “But our scout team is a lot of young guys who haven’t ever run the offense. It’s a very difficult thing to try to recreate at practice.”
    Last season, the roles in this game were reversed as Wheeler County was already on its way to the play-in round and the Panthers trying to make a late run. The Bulldogs took away a 21-7 win in that contest and forced Portal to end its regular season with no hope of getting to state, but the Panthers aren’t too concerned with any sort of revenge.
    “We don’t think about anything that has happened in the past,” said NeSmith. “We’re just concerned with what we can accomplish right now. I think that we’re a pretty good team this season. We’re trying to improve from week to week, and we’ll be tested tonight. Wheeler County is a good team with a lot to play for.”

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