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Tight at the top
Region 3-A battling for play-in spots
101411 PORTAL FOOTBALL 02 web
Portal running back Trai Gadson, upper left, knifes through three Jenkins County defenders for a touchdown to put the Panthers up 14-7 in the second quarter Friday. The Panthers won 14-13. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    With just two weeks left before the Region 3-A play-in round to determine which four of its schools will advance to the state playoffs, there is still much to be decided and many area teams still in the hunt.
    Among the teams battling for positioning, Portal might be the most pleasant surprise. The Panthers managed just six total wins from 2007-2010, but first year head coach David NeSmith has authored a quick turnaround and has his team sitting at 4-3. More importantly, Portal is locked in a three-way tie for the top spot in its sub-region.
    Tie-breakers might end up costing the Panthers a home game and a more favorable matchup in the play-in round, but Portal is still excited to be back in the postseason discussion.
    “Right now, we’re just concerned with winning each game as it comes,” said NeSmith. “We can’t control what other teams do each week, but we feel like we can keep improving and put ourselves in position to win our games.”
    No matter where the Panthers finish in the West sub-region, it is likely that they’ll face a local rival in their play-in game against an East sub-region opponent.
    Searching for its fourth consecutive trip to the play-in round – but its first journey farther on into the state playoffs – Claxton is still in good shape, but has some work left to do. The Tigers started off 3-1, but were humbled by Savannah Christian and then lost a heart-breaker in overtime to Calvary Day two weeks ago.
“We knew that it was going to be a fight this season,” said Claxton coach Allen Cartwright. “I thought that Savannah Christian might have a leg up on everyone — and they have — but everything else has been pretty even from week to week.”
    Similar to the Panthers, Claxton might be looking at a road game in the play-in round, but it is prepared for any situation.
    “We’ve got some guys who have been through this before,” said Cartwright. “We know what it’s going to take down the stretch.”
    What it might take is a big win over an old rival in the final week of the regular season to keep state playoff hopes alive. Last season, Claxton defeated Metter in its last regular season game to clinch the final spot in the play-in round. Depending on how things shake out Friday, the two rivals could both be fighting for the final spot once again
    Metter has taken some big steps forward in the last two seasons, greatly contributing to the traffic jam throughout the middle of the East sub-region. Much like the situation at Portal, Mike West arrived at Metter last season and immediately turned it into a contender. West and company fell short of the play-in round last year, but can take that next step with a pair of wins in the coming weeks.
    Elsewhere in the East sub-region, Bryan County sits at 5-2 and is threatening to sneak into a play-in spot with its best season in over a decade.
    With so many teams grouped in the middle of the pack and two more weeks to play, there are dozens of scenarios as to which teams will advance to the play-in round and where they will be seeded.
    The only thing that is certain is that — however things end up — it will be a wild ride in getting
there.

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