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Willoughby gets to work with Portal Panthers
Portal Panthers head football coach Jon Willoughby, left, teaches tackling fundamentals to kick off practice on Tuesday. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    PORTAL — No matter the expectations, the preseason preparations rarely change for the Portal Panthers.
    As one of the smallest GHSA schools to field a football team — and with rosters routinely hovering at or below 30 players — conditioning is key for Portal. Of course, that only becomes more difficult with soaring temperatures and safety regulations limiting training even as full-squad practices get underway.
    Hot and muggy weather is just the latest hurdle for a Panther squad that has been trying to build momentum since the spring.
    Portal finished the 2013 campaign with wins in three of its final six games, but head coach David NeSmith departed for Bradwell Institute just before the end of the school year. Jon Willoughby was hired away from Southeast Bulloch to run the Panthers and, while he may be new to Portal, his 19 years of experience have him feeling up to the challenge of building the program.
    “With no spring practice and arriving late in the spring, things got off a little bit of a slow start for us,” Willoughby said. “That continued into summer, but I think we’ve improved and gotten going since July 4.”
    Willoughby mentioned that the always-important roster size currently stood around 25, but that the team had seen some new faces in later summer workouts. He also hopes that some late word of mouth advertising after school is in session could add a few more players before the regular season begins.
    Regardless of the team’s final size, there is no doubting that most returning starters will be in for a season of iron man football — handling duties on offense, defense, and even special teams.
    “That’s just the reality of things,” Willoughby said. “I understand that. I think the players understand that. And that’s why we’re really working hard on strength and conditioning throughout the summer and into these first few days of fall practice. We know that we’re going to have to be a very well-conditioned team to play hard for four quarters each week.”
    The numbers game at Portal also puts the coaching staff under a bit more pressure.
    Many larger schools can focus on returning veteran players and bringing new starters up to speed on the playbook while freshman and players new to football can be slowly merged into the daily routine.
    In the Panthers’ case, any able body needs to be ready for playing time, meaning that even the youngest and newest members on the roster will be thrown into the fire from the get-go.
    And for those who are returning this season, there’s always the challenge of learning a new playbook and meshing with new coaches.
    “It’s just a process that we have to feel out,” Willoughby said. “There’s a lot to consider. We need to get guys conditioned and we need to get everything organized.
“At the same time, we have to be careful about injuries. Even when we can go full pads, we have to keep an eye on numbers. We don’t want to lose on Friday because of an injury at practice on Tuesday.”
    When the season begins, the Panthers will run their usual gauntlet — including a pair of road trips to Savannah — in the always-competitive Region 3-A. Even Portal’s non sub-region contests offer no reprieve as Johnson County and perennial rival Emanuel County Institute account for two of the Panthers’ first four games.

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