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Portal tries to make playoffs regular again
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Portal's Ronald Williams, left, rips the ball away from Jenkins County's Devon Scott on a key fourth quarter rebound and put-back Tuesday.

 Losing a large group of seniors can be tough for any basketball program, especially when it’s five seniors off a team of 13 players.
    But that’s what Portal’s boys basketball team is faced with tonight when they tip off their season at home against Bryan County. That quinary scored 67.4 percent of Portal’s total scoring production from 2015-16, which on its face would seem like a huge loss.
    However head coach Jeff Brannen, now in his 25th year as head coach, says the loss isn’t as catastrophic as it looks. Even with the loss of five seniors, the amount of experience lost isn’t so huge.
    “Those players hadn’t been in the program very long,” Brannen said. “The six seniors who left behind them were the ones who had been in the program the longest.”
    Those six players from the 2014-15 season helped Portal to a 21-8 record and a trip to the quarterfinals. Trent Thomas, Akeem Oglesby and D’von Moore — the senior score of that team — each averaged double-digit points and helped Portal shoot 46 percent from the field as a team.
    But that average dropped to 37 percent last season, and the win total fell to 13. And even though Portal would finish 9-3 in their region, the out of region schedule was too much for the team to handle and ultimately kept them out of the playoffs.
    “We finished tied for first with Savannah Christian last season,” Brannen said. “But our out-of-region schedule isn’t as tough this year, so it should help.”
    So no more Statesboro’s or Wilkerson’s for this young Portal team in 2016-17, but instead a much more region-focused slate, with only two opponents (Metter and Bryan County) who don’t fall into single A classification.
    Brannen said he wants the transition for this year’s much younger team to be smooth transition and not to beat them up on a game-to-game basis. But he doesn’t want the team to lose any emphasis that basketball is a grind, and quality of play matters more during the end of the season.
    “We need to get these young guys some experience first and foremost,” Brannon said. “But I don’t want to lose the emphasis that in basketball it’s not how you start it’s how you finish.”
    Perhaps the most impressive of those young players coming back this season is Ronald Williams, a six-foot-two post whose potential was well documented last season. Williams averaged 9.0 rebounds a game, leading the 2015-16 team by a wide margin.
    More impressively, he accounted for 27.9 percent of the team’s offensive rebounds — averaging 4.2 a game. Add in 2.8 blocks and 2.6 steals per game last season, and Williams was a defensive force as a sophomore last season. But Brannen already knows this, and has worked to add offense to Williams’ repertoire this offseason.
    “Defensively he is very good,” Brannen said. “But we want him to develop more of an offensive game so we can get him some looks around the basket.”
    Two sophomores, Devonte Brown and Connor Washington, will look to lead the offense from the backcourt. Other good athletes with length like Craig Ware, Malik Delpesh and Wyee Williams should make for a very tough defensive team in region 3-A.
    Brannen will admit outside of Treutlen County, the region’s basketball play has been down over the past couple of years. Outside of Treutlen, no other region team from last season won more than 15 games. But as class A goes, the power ratings decide who goes to the playoffs.
    The playoffs are the end goal for the Portal boys. Brannen’s been to the state tournament 12 of the last 17 seasons and had a five year streak broken in 2015-16. But it’s a task the players at hand believe they can step up and take.
    “I know we’ve got the boys to win it this year,” Ronald Williams said. “We’re hungry and we’ve been working hard for this.”
    Tonight’s season opener against Bryan County tips off at 7:30, with the girls opener starting prior at 6:00.

Portal girls looking for stability
    Under new head direction once again, the Lady Panthers will now look to David Hodges for guidance in 2016-17 following a 10-17 season.
    But Hodges, even as head coach, will differ to the man who’s been with the program for quite some time now — Cliff Hubbard. An assistant who might wield more influence on one team than most other assistant coaches in the county, Hubbard is ready to get Portal back on track.
    “We had some disorganization last season that kind of threw us off track at the beginning of the year,” Hubbard said. “But now we’ll finally have the stability for a good foundation early in the season.”
    But they’ll have to do it without two of the better scorers to come through the program: Breyonna Raymond and Chandelier Morgan. The two combined for 27.9 points per game last season, which would make up 75 percent of Portal’s per game scoring average in 2015-16.
    So it’s safe to say Portal will have to find offense from somewhere else this season. Senior point guard Dashonda Morgan will be a point of emphasis on offense, but if nothing on the perimeter
    is working the frontcourt duo of Arieanna and Aleaha Williams will need to generate some offense near the basket.
    “Dashonda will run point and will make things go,” Hubbard said. “Our goal is to slow things down and try to make other teams grind out against us.”
    If finding offense wasn’t hard enough, the region the Lady Panthers will play in this year is not easy. Calvary Day, Savannah County Day and Wheeler County are all coming off 20 plus win seasons, while Treutlen and Woodville-Tompkins are coming off playoff appearances.
    If Portal is to get back to the state tournament, they’ll not only need to make it a point to beat the lower-tier teams in their region but somehow find a way to steal games against the aforementioned royalty of region 3-A to move on to the postseason.
    “Calvary Day is going to be really good, but I think we can compete with anyone,” Morgan said. “I know our team this year is capable of it.”
    If Portal can find big performances from key seniors like Morgan, it’s possible for them to end their two-year playoff drought.