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Willoughby, Portal ready for 2014 season
First-year Portal head coach Jon Willoughby tells his new players that the work starts now after he was introduced in this Wednesday, May 14, file photo. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file

Region: 3-A
Head Coach: Jon Willoughby (1st season, 0-0)
Last Season: 3-6-1, 3-3 (5th, Region 3A-A)
2013 Postseason: None
Key Losses: Andy Harlow, OL; Jameson Mikell, OL/DL; Harrison Sherrod, DB
Key Returners: Evan Street, QB; Trent Thomas, LB

2013 Results
Southeast Bulloch        T   0-0
Tattnall County        L   14-0
Johnson County        L   20-13
ECI            L   42-21
Jenkins County        W 28-16
Claxton            L   13-8
Savannah Christian    W 10-7
Sav. Country Day        L   17-14
Calvary Day        L    30-0
Montgomery County    W  15-12

2014 Schedule
Aug. 29    JOSEY
Sept. 5    TREUTLEN
Sept. 12    ECI
Sept. 26    at Johnson County
Oct. 3    at Claxton*
Oct. 10     at Savannah Country Day*
Oct. 17     CALVARY DAY*
Oct. 24     at Savannah Christian*
Oct. 31     at Jenkins County*
Nov. 7     Region 3-A play-in game*
*- Region 3-A game

    PORTAL — To a man, there might not be a football program in Georgia that asks more of its players than the Portal Panthers.
    Just a handful of other schools can claim a smaller school enrollment than Portal while still fielding a football team. But that scenario is nothing new for the Panthers who will send a roster of about 30 headlong into one of the most difficult regions in Class A.
    Portal enters 2014 hoping to find more wins under new head coach Jon Willoughby. The Panthers have mostly put up solid region records over the past four seasons, but with a power poll – and not region standings – determining who will advance to the Class A public school state playoffs, more wins are the only way to get a crack at the postseason.
    “We know that we’ve got our challenges,” Willoughby said. “We’ve got some schools on the schedule like Savannah Christian and Calvary Day that are in our region, but have two or three times as many guys. It’s a challenge, but one we’re willing to accept.”
    Luckily for Portal, a small roster doesn’t mean small or inexperienced players.
    Senior linebacker Trent Thomas heads up a stifling defense and will look to repeat his 126-tackle performance from last fall that had him amongst the top five tacklers in Georgia spanning all classifications.
    On the other side of the ball, senior Evan Street — who has topped the depth chart since the second quarter of his freshman season — returns for his fourth year under center. He will command an option offense while also serving as the last line of defense from his free safety position.

Here are five things to look for when the Portal Panthers open the season on August 29, against Josey:
    GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Willoughby joined the Panthers late in the spring and Portal did not hold any spring practices. The rest of the coaching staff did not join the team until later in the summer. If the Panthers are to improve on last season, coaches and players will need to mesh quickly in order to execute game plans.

    NEW BOSS, SAME AS OLD BOSS: Street has missed just a handful of games due to injury over his career and is a proven leader of the Portal offense. Street led the Panthers within a win of the state playoffs as a freshman. The last two seasons haven’t been as successful, giving him one final chance to reach the postseason.

    BATTLE IN THE TRENCHES: In order to control the pace of play and mitigate a lack of depth, the Panthers will once again emphasize moving chains on offense while stuffing the run on defense. When the plan works, it makes for plenty of close games. Panther lineman — most of whom play both ways — will need to be ready to last upwards of 100 plays each Friday.

    NUMBERS GAME: Three years in, some Class A coaches are still scratching their heads trying to figure out the ratings and rankings that determine the 16-team state playoff field. One way to get a leg up on the field would be a Portal win over Josey in the season opener as Josey is a Class AAA school and would award the Panthers more points in the ratings scale.

    NO GIMMIES: There is no question that the Panthers play in the tougher sub-region of Region 3-A. Calvary Day and Savannah Christian both figure to make the private school playoffs and sub-region rival Claxton secured a spot in the public school postseason last year. Also dotting the Panthers’ schedule are West sub-region favorites Johnson County and Emanuel County Institute.

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