Learning curve for Panthers

By Kevin Eckleberry

April 7, 2014

When the LaGrange College Panthers embarked on a new season, head coach David Kelton knew what he was facing.

The Panthers were a senior-laden team in 2013, and when they played their final game, 15 players hung up their jerseys for the final time.

And of those 15 seniors, most of them either started, or played a key role on the team.

“It’s definitely been a challenge. Pretty much every spot on the field is brand news for our guys,” Kelton said. “We graduated 15 seniors last year, and pretty much all of them in some way shape or form had a big role on our team last year. Losing that experience, it was tough.”

Not surprisingly, it has been an up-and-down season for the Panthers, who are 9-19 overall, and 6-12 in the USA South.

There have been some bright spots, including USA South series wins against Averett and Maryville, but the Panthers have also had to deal with some lengthy losing streaks.

They’ve lost at least four games in a row on three different occasions, and they snapped a five-game skid with a come-from-behind win over Piedmont on Sunday.

“Record-wise, it’s not where we want to be, but in due time it’s going to get there,” Kelton said. “These guys are learning a lot, they’re playing the game the right way.”

Kelton welcomed a big freshman class before the season, and many of those players have been thrust right into the starting lineup.

“At any given moment, we could have six or seven freshmen out on the field starting,” Kelton said.

One of the players who isn’t new to the college game is former Callaway Cavalier Chris Laye, who is having a terrific season.

Laye, a junior who transferred to LaGrange College before the season, is hitting .316, and he is second on the team with 11 RBIs.

Another veteran, junior Jim Reed, has a slow start to the season, but he has been on fire the past few weeks, and the former Troup Tiger has seen his average rise to .250, and he is second on the team with 15 runs scored.

One of the freshmen, Casey Bell, is hitting .309, and he is tops on the team with 14 RBIs.

Another freshman, former Troup Tiger Jarred Adams, has been a stalwart on the pitching staff with a 2-4 record and a 3.07 earned run average, and he is one of three pitchers who has started seven games.

Freshman Justin Yestrumsky has also started seven games, as has sophomore Zach Tatham.

Yet another freshman, Daniel Garrett, has been a marvel out of the bullpen.

Garrett, who has made a team-high 10 appearances, is 1-0 with a stellar 0.42 ERA, and he has allowed just one run in 21 innings.

The only seniors on the team are catcher Kyle Nerbonne and pitcher Gage Mooney.

Of the 47 players on the roster, 37 of them are either freshmen or sophomores.

Kelton believes the experience those players are gaining now is going to end up paying big dividends.

“They’re getting valuable experience being able to be freshmen, and be out there and compete at the collegiate level,” Kelton said. “Most freshmen come in, and they sit the bench for a year or two and learn from upperclassmen. They’re able to get out there and really learn a lot.”

The Panthers, after opening their conference schedule with a 1-5 record, went on the road and took two of three from Averett and Maryville.

The Panthers then dropped their next five USA South games before rallying from a 6-0 deficit in the first inning to beat Piedmont 12-7.

“We’ve had some good games, we’ve had more bad games, but our guys are learning a lot this season,” Kelton said.

The Panthers will be in North Carolina this weekend for a conference series against Greensboro beginning Friday.

The Panthers will then play eight of their final nine games at home, and they’ll wrap up the season with a doubleheader against Methodist on April 26.