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Portal, SEB face cross-county showdown

    BROOKLET — Last season, Southeast Bulloch was able to end a long losing streak with a win over cross-county rival Portal. This year, SEB wants to prove that it was no fluke.
    The pair of old enemies will square off once again tonight as Portal makes its way across Bulloch County to Fred Shaver Field for a season opening game with the Yellow Jackets.
    In its scrimmage against Bryan County last week, SEB looked shaky at first, but quickly came around and dominated possession for much of the night. This year’s team looks to be playing at a higher level than the 2010 edition of the Jackets thanks to a rigorous summer of workouts and a very large and talented rising sophomore class.   
“One of the biggest things going for us is that we have some young guys who are used to winning,” said SEB coach Pat Collins. “We still have a lot to improve on, but we have hard workers and some guys on this team that expect to win.”
    The Jackets’ biggest challenge tonight will be controlling the line of scrimmage. Portal has All-Region talent lining up at the front of both sides of the ball, meaning that SEB’s dependence on an effective running game is contingent on stopping the Panther rush and creating holes.
    Defensively, Portal will attack the middle of the line with its wishbone look and it will be up to the SEB defensive line, along with its experienced linebackers —easily the biggest defensive strength for the Jackets — to put a stop to drives.
    For the Panthers, tonight’s game has been viewed as a deadline for preparations ever since Portal — once again — shook up its coaching situation.
    David NeSmith was brought in from Statesboro High just before the end of the 2009-10 school year to be the Panthers’ third head coach in three seasons. With the coaching change came changes in schemes and the Panthers have been working throughout the summer to get comfortable in their new wishbone attack.
    “It’s a big challenge for our guys, but I’m proud of the way they’ve handled it,” said NeSmith. “We had a pretty good turnout in the summer and you could see some of the older guys step up to be leaders. There are going to be mistakes. You can’t run anything perfect the first time, but I can see that we’ve been coming along.”
    During last year’s matchup in Portal, the Panthers notched the first score of the game, but the Jackets came roaring back and a big second half gave them a 37-12 victory. With just over 30 players on last year’s roster, the late August heat may have been a factor in Portal’s demise. The Panthers have only 35 suited up this season, but don’t want to hear about getting tired late in games.
    “We made conditioning a priority,” said NeSmith. “Our roster size is what it is. In the last few years, we’ve been in a lot of games, but lost them late. There are a lot of guys playing both ways, but we have to still be a strong team in the fourth quarter.”
    This isn’t a region matchup and neither team will be any closer to a playoff bid with a win, but the mood on both sidelines will still be dead serious.
    “You can’t take anyone lightly,” said Collins. “I think we’re excited to get out there and start the season, but I know Portal is ready too. It should be a very good ballgame.”

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