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Portal ready to hit the diamond

    PORTAL — There are plenty of new faces at Portal this season, both on the diamond and in the dugout, but after several years of continued success, the Lady Panthers are set to continue the trend in the 2011 season.
    Last year, Portal compiled a .500 record in Region 3-A play and fell just short of the Class-A state playoffs. This season, the Panthers must replace their head coach to go along with nine departed seniors.
    “No doubt, it’s a big challenge,” said Valarie Kinard, who replaces Shannon Davis and is taking over as a head coach for the first time in her career. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m not excited. Softball is something that has been a passion for me since I was 10 years old. We’ve got some talented girls that I’m going to instill that same sort of love for the game in.”
    Kinard’s enthusiasm is unquestioned, but her work is certainly cut out for her. Just two starters return to this year’s squad, with major holes at pitcher and in the middle of the batting order that must be filled.
    Still, Kinard is optimistic.
    “With so many new girls, we’re all going to have to learn and get comfortable together,” said Kinard. “As returners, I’m really relying on Chansley (Parker) and Mary (Lane) to be like extra coaches out on the field and help the younger girls out.”
    Key to this year’s success will be replacing Megan Anderson and Nikki Simms. Anderson was Portal’s ace on the mound for the last three seasons while Simms was the heart of the Panthers offense.
    Both are now playing college softball for East Georgia.
    Sophomore Amber Finch steps in as Portal’s go-to pitcher and her arm – which Kinard praises as both strong and accurate — will look to pace the Panthers as they get settled in.
    A pair of freshmen are also going to make an immediate impact as Cheyenne Walker will patrol second base and Hannah Allen will try to provide some pop in the batting order.
    “I know we’re young and inexperienced,” said Kinard. “But I really like our girls. They have some athleticism and raw talent. Once they build some more passion for the game and get some games at the high school level under their belt, I think we’ll be alright.”

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