Head Coach: David NeSmith (2nd season, 6-4)
2011 Record: 6-4, 5-1 Region 3W-A
Postseason: Lost 34-8 to Calvary Day in Region 3-A play-in game
Top Prospect: Evan Street, QB; Corey Reese, TE; Tanner Brown, OL/DL
Key losses: Hunter Oglesby, QB; Joe Lockley, OL/DL/K; Corey Walker, RB
Circle the Calendar: Aug. 31 vs. SEB; Oct. 12 vs. Claxton; Nov. 9 at Calvary Day
PORTAL — It was hard to find a better feel-good story than the Portal Panthers in 2011.
Coming off of five consecutive losing season — and entering play with their third head coach in as many years — the Panthers started off slow, but caught fire through the final two months of the schedule.
Portal won its final five regular season games and came up just short of qualifying for the state playoffs, losing to Calvary Day in a Region 3-A play-in game.
For first year head coach David NeSmith, 2011 was a resounding success. He took a team with a roster that at times dipped below 30 players and found plenty of wins where there had been few before.
But 15 seniors are gone from last year’s squad and the Panthers and NeSmith have another rebuilding job in store for this season.
“It’s tough losing that many seniors,” said NeSmith. “It’s even tougher when you consider the size of our team. A lot of our guys play both ways. For most of those seniors that we lost, we’re looking to replace their position on offense and defense.”
A similar exodus won’t be a concern at the end of this season as the 2012 Panthers have just six seniors. Of course, that makes for a roster that is long on youth and inexperience.
In all, 24 of Portal’s 38 players are either freshmen or sophomores.
“We know that there’s a lot of work to do and a long way to go,” said NeSmith. “At the same time, we have to be patient in developing everyone. We can’t just rush into where we want to go. That doesn’t do us any good if we aren’t executing the basics.”
Entrusted with helping to instill the fundamentals and keeping the team under control on the field will be sophomore quarterback Evan Street. Last season, Street figured to be the backup quarterback, but was forced into taking nearly every snap for the Panthers after Hunter Oglesby was injured in the season opener.
Although he’s still young, Street has made steady progress in commanding the offense and has the full support and confidence as his coach.
“It’s not everyday that you can find a sophomore who is willing to lead and put in the work that (Street) does,” said NeSmith. “He’s going to be a big part of how quickly we can learn and compete.”
Portal is also fortunate that the one position with plenty of depth is one of its most important.
Larry Hough and Casey Jones both return to an offensive backfield that is given plenty of work in the Panthers’ wishbone attack. Both were effective runners last season and will be looking to improve on their numbers this time around.
But finding running lanes may be difficult as offensive linemen Isiah Rich and 2011 Region 3W-A Player of the Year Joe Lockley are both gone. The loss of that pair will also be felt on the defensive side of the ball.
Corey Reese will be counted on to hold down one side of the line as either a tight end or tackle, while Tanner Brown moves to center. Both will also have a hand on the defensive line.
“There isn’t any replacing some of the talent that we lost, but we have to find ways to win with the talent that we have,” said NeSmith. “We aren’t going to be quite as big or strong, but we still have guys that can play and make an impact.”
The Panthers will be tested early and often by teams like Johnson County and Emanuel County Institute.
Portal doesn’t begin sub-region play until Oct. 5, and if the young Panthers can overcome some growing pains, another late season run could be in the cards.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.