PORTAL — For Portal, the last few years have been frustrating under the Friday night lights.
While always sporting some of the top athletes in Region 3-A, depth concerns, coaching changes, and sometimes just some bad luck have conspired to send the Panthers to a 6-34 record over the last four seasons.
This season, yet another coaching change – and with it, another new offense – has come along, but new coach David NeSmith and his Panthers are determined to get the program back on track.
"It was a little hectic at first," said NeSmith of his introduction to Portal, which came in the middle of spring practice. "Now, I think we’re a lot more comfortable. The kids have all bought in and have been working their tails off to learn all of the new things we’re installing."
At the center of all of what is new for the Panthers are three senior mainstays in Hunter Oglesby, Corey Walker and Denzell Washington.
All three are entering their third year as starters and impact players for a school that has asked them to change their roles multiple times. With each change, they have taken things in stride and continued to be players that the Panthers can count on.
"It’s a little tougher, and the first time (schemes changed) it was a little frustrating," said Oglesby, who will command the Portal offense from under center this season. "All we can do is work hard and learn the new stuff. I think we’re all pretty confident that we can succeed."
Walker joins Oglesby in the backfield and figures to get plenty of quality time with the football in the new offense. NeSmith came to Portal from Statesboro and has installed the power running wishbone attack that has been such a success for the Blue Devils.
"Corey is a guy that we’re really counting on," said NeSmith. "He is a very talented athlete and we’ll have him in the middle of the defense as a linebacker in addition to being a running back. I expect big things out of him this season. I told him that I think he can get 1,000 yards and 100 tackles."
Making holes for Oglesby and Walker to run through — before turning around on defense and plugging opponents’ running lanes — will be Washington. The big defensive tackle looked dominant in Portal’s scrimmage against Tattnall County and also looks like he’ll have plenty of help along the front line with fellow senior Joe Lockley.
Playing both ways is a common sight for the Panthers as the roster hovers around 35 players.
Last season, the lack of depth showed – especially early in the season during the warmer games – as Portal’s talent was plenty enough to compete with some of Region 3-A’s best, but fatigue took its toll in the final quarters.
This season will throw similar challenges in front of the Panthers, but they’re prepared to deal with it.
"There’s no denying that depth is an issue," said NeSmith. "It’s just something we need to cope with as best we can. We spent a lot of the summer conditioning for this. If we can stand up and compete in the fourth quarter, we can win some games."
Portal gets its first test August 26 against cross-county rival Southeast Bulloch in Brooklet before taking on Metter and Claxton in cross-region matchups that won't influence the final region standings.
Beginning in Week 3, Portal embarks on a difficult region schedule. The Panthers must travel to Johnson County and Emanuel County Institute — both are figured to contend for a region title — but will likely have a shot to clinch a berth in the Region 3-A play-in round if they can take advantage of favorable scheduling late in the season.
Last season, Portal's late season charge came up just short, but a few big plays here and there could be the turning point that the Panthers have been searching for.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.