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Portal visits region rival Claxton

Portal (2-2, 0-0) at Claxton (3-1, 0-0)
7:30 p.m., Friday

Game Plan
    IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS: The Panthers made some uncharacteristic mistakes as last week’s game against Johnson County got away from them. Being fundamentally sound will be key against a Claxton squad that can put up points.
    SPECIAL TREATMENT: Portal’s kicking game is high-risk, high-reward. Quirky punt formations allow for good coverage, but make blocked kicks a threat. Multiple short kickoffs give opponents short fields, but can also produce key turnovers. If the ball bounces right on special teams, Portal can gain a big edge.
    GRUDGE MATCH: For the most part, this rivalry has been one-sided. Claxton has won 11 of the 14 previous meetings with Portal’s victories coming in three consecutive seasons from 2004-06. The Tigers dominate the win column, but there have been plenty of close calls.

    PORTAL — A cat fight is in store tonight as the Portal Panthers make the short trip to the Pecan Grove to take on the Claxton Tigers in each team’s sub-region opener.
    While most region openers carry a added pressure and playoff implications, this game is a bit different. Thanks to the power poll – now in its third season of determining state playoff participants for both public and private schools at the Class A level – tonight’s game is just as vital as the games that have already been played and those that will follow.
    “I guess it helps,” Portal coach Jon Willoughby said. “Our goal is to be focused and prepared to play each game. Claxton is a good team and a region rival, but we’re approaching this game just like we do every other game.”
    Portal (2-2) will be trying to shake off its first sub-par performance of the season. In its attempt to upset Johnson County last week, some errors – both physical and mental – piled up to hand the Panthers a lopsided loss.
    Willoughby acknowledged that his team’s option attack leaves it prone to damaging turnovers, but is also confident that better execution will make the Panthers a tough matchup for anyone.
    On the opposite sideline of tonight’s game will be a team that is building momentum and firing on all cylinders.
    Claxton (3-1)took a tough loss in its season opener, but has averaged 31 points per game in running up three consecutive wins.
    “Claxton doesn’t do a whole lot, but they do it well,” Willoughby said. “They run their offense well and they can definitely put up points.”
    Tonight’s game will feature an abundance of offensive playmakers.
    Portal features a veteran quarterback in Evan Street, a dangerous receiving threat — and intimidating presence at linebacker — in Trent Thomas, and a highlight-making machine in running back Malik Williiams.
    On the opposite sideline, Claxton features reigning Region 3-A Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Cornelius Taylor and big-play threat Zach Grant at running back.
    Grant spent last season carrying the ball for Statesboro, but has returned to Claxton, where he began his high school career and where he torched the Panthers for over 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2012.
    Now back with the Tigers, Grant is fitting right in and is a big part of Claxton’s hopes to return to the postseason.
    “It’s good to see everyone coming together,” Williams said. “I think that this year’s seniors are a big part of that. They worked hard to get to the playoffs last season. And we’re not satisfied. Everyone is wanting to take that next step.”
    Tonight’s game is just the beginning of the gauntlet for both teams.
    The winner will get a nice boost in the power ratings, but both teams sill have ranked Calvary Day and Savannah Christian remaining on the schedule.

    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.