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Portal Panthers host JCHS

Johnson County (2-0) at Portal (0-2)
7:30 p.m., Today
Portal Athletic Complex

    PORTAL — The first two weeks of the season have dealt two tough losses to the Portal Panthers and things don’t figure to get any easier tonight as Johnson County comes to town.
    Even after a summer’s worth of weight room workouts, all of fall camp and a pair of regular season games, the fact remains that the Panthers (0-2) are still a very young and inexperienced team.
    Each game allows the Panthers’ underclassmen to get a better idea of how to execute the plays and compete, but that doesn’t always mean that good results will follow.
    “There’s no doubt that we’ve had a couple of tough games,” said Portal coach David NeSmith. “We’re still learning and everything isn’t going to come all at once. This is a process. The best thing that we can do right now is to stay positive and continue taking strides forward.”
    The Trojans (2-0) will offer Portal another chance to make some progress on the field as the teams meet in a cross-region matchup. Portal and Johnson County were sub-region rivals in each of the past two seasons, but 2012 has seen the Panthers relocate to the eastern half of Region 3-A.
    Johnson County enters tonight’s game as a dangerous squad, but one that is still looking for consistency. The Trojans had to claw their way to a win over Jenkins County in their season opener, but exploded for a 46-32 win over Twiggs County last week.
    “Looking at the tape, it is just a matter of hanging on to the ball,” said NeSmith. “Johnson County turned it over too many times in that first game. When they held on to it against Twiggs, you can see how dangerous they are.”
    The Trojans rely mostly on a power running game, but also possess the ability to stretch the field and air it out. Senior quarterback Keemo Burton will direct the Johnson County offense and slowing him down both passing and throwing will be key to Portal’s success.
    Offensively, the Panthers are still looking for a spark.
    Portal has scored just one touchdown in its first two games and has yet to hold a lead of any kind.
    Sophomore quarterback Evan Street returned to action last week after sitting out the opener with an injury, but couldn’t get the offense going.
    Regardless of who is under center, the path to more points begins in the trenches.
    “The main focus we have to have is to block better,” said NeSmith. “Right now, we just aren’t staying on our blocks long enough to execute our plays. We can try different schemes and looks, but we aren’t going to improve until we start blocking better.”
    Portal could really use an upset victory, but it will be tough sledding against a Trojan team that has dominated the recent series. The Trojans have won the last seven meetings, including a 34-6 victory in the first round of the 2006 state playoffs.
    Even if that first win doesn’t come for Portal tonight, perhaps there is a silver lining.
    The Panthers hit a low spot after last season’s 14-0 defeat at the hands of the Trojans, but that game proved to be a turning point as they ripped off five consecutive wins and came within a game of reaching the postseason.

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