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Resurgent Portal turning experience into success
Portal shortstop Faith Oglesby, right, bumps gloves with pitcher Keri Carter after Oglesby threw a Statesboro runner out at first for the third out of the third inning at Mill Creek Park at the Battle in the Boro in this Friday, Aug. 23, file photo.

    PORTAL — Over the last two seasons, the Portal softball team was thrilled just to grab the occasional wins that came around.
    This season, the Lady Panthers (6-9, 2-5 Region 3-A) have become a threat to everyone on the schedule and are picking up steam as the postseason draws closer.
    “Our girls expect to win,” Portal coach Valerie Kinard said. “I think we’ve proven to ourselves and to other teams that we have some good talent. Now we have the confidence to expect to win every time we take the field.”
    That wasn’t the case when Kinard took the reins of the program in 2011.
    Portal was coming off of an appearance in the state playoffs, but also lost 12 seniors from that squad. With just two returning varsity players, Portal struggled mightily. A rough 2011 led to more attrition and an equally bad 2012.
    As the 2013 season began in August, Portal once again had to rely on young players with little experience at the varsity level.
    But a funny thing happened on the way to another rough season.
    Portal’s freshmen and sophomores managed a few early wins and have been gaining momentum ever since.
    Sophomore Caitlyn Girardeau has become a stalwart of the team in just her second season. Girardeau’s bat has provided the Panthers with plenty of pop in the middle of the order while her work behind the plate has led to a much more effective defense.
    Freshmen Faith Oglesby and Keri Carter have immediately stepped in to become a reliable 1-2 punch on the mound for Portal. In the past two seasons, the Panthers have struggled to find pitchers that could consistently throw strikes. Oglesby and Carter are both solid performers on the mound and — when not in the pitcher’s circle — have rotated in and out of playing effective defense at shortstop.
    “I’m very happy with what our young girls have been able to accomplish,” Kinard said. “But we could be even better. There have been some games where a few simple mistakes have cost us. We would have liked to win those games, but we have high hopes going forward.”
    Even as each game brings about another young Panther stepping up, Portal would still be at a disadvantage without its one true veteran.
    Kenya Huff is the team’s only senior and the only player who Kinard has coached in each of her first three seasons.
    During Tuesday’s 17-0 win over Claxton — where she collected two hits and knocked in three runs — Huff was the only upperclassmen on the field for Portal.
    Now in her fourth season with the Panthers, Huff already has two All-Region selections and seems to be headed for a third as she continues to be one of the most dangerous cleanup hitters around.
    “Kenya breathes softball,” Kinard said. “I’m very happy to have had her around since I started. Even when we were struggling, she has been solid for us. I’m very happy that we’ve gotten things turned around and Kenya is a big part of that.”
    With five region games remaining to close out the regular season schedule, the Panthers are ready to make their run.
    “We’ve got some challenges, but we think that we can get wins in these last five games,” Kinard said. “We’re trying to get the best seeding we can for the region tournament. Once that starts, I think this team fully expects to be there until the end.”

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