They were on the doorstep in 2003.
The LaGrange Grangers made it the Class AAA semifinals that season, but they were turned away, leaving them still searching for the first state championship in the history of the baseball program.
In 2004, the Grangers made it to the doorstep once again, but they didn’t stop there.
After beating Spalding County in the semifinals, the Grangers earned a shot at the title, and they beat Cartersville in a thrilling three-game series to win that long-awaited state championship.
On Friday, many of the players and coaches from the 2004 team will get together at Granger Park for a celebration of that state championship.
Before the game against Fayette County, the 2004 team will be honored, and spectators are encouraged to get to the game well before the first pitch at 5:30 p.m.
One of the men who’ll be a part of that ceremony is Donnie Branch, who was the head coach of the 2004 team.
Branch stepped down following the 2012 season, and his Hall-of-Fame career was highlighted by that championship team.
Branch guided multiple teams deep into the playoffs, but only the 2004 team won it all.
“We were really good defensively, and offensively we had some firepower,” Branch said. “And the thing that took them over the top, it was very high-caliber kids, high-caliber character. Nobody was selfish. None of them cared if they got the glory. They all pulled for each other. They had all the things we say as coaches that we need and want, but it’s really hard to get. That’s the way they were.”
If that team was going to reach its goal, Branch knew that somewhere along the way it would have to beat Cartersville.
Cartersville came into the championship series having won three consecutive state titles, and it had won 19 consecutive playoff series.
The teams knew each other well that year since they both played in Region 6-AAA.
LaGrange won the region title that season, and Cartersville finished second.
When the state playoffs began, they were on opposite sides of the bracket, meaning they wouldn’t meet until the championship series.
Both teams marched through the first four rounds of the playoffs, setting up that championship showdown.
LaGrange won the first game 4-1, but Cartersville won the second game 2-1, and it was on to a winner-take-all third game.
In that Game 3, LaGrange broke a 10-10 tie with three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning, and it went on to win 13-10, setting off a celebration among the team, as well as the huge crowd in attendance.
“These were the first ones to get the big prize. Nobody else can ever do that,” Branch said. “And to win it and go through (Cartersville), that made it really legitimate. We had to go through one of the top programs in Georgia. It was just a first-class program.”
That LaGrange team had so many strengths, and that included a one-two combination at the front of the starting rotation that was second-to-none in the state.
Korey Noles and Josh Edmondson headlined that staff, and they were remarkable, winning a combined 22 games that season.
Noles was also a standout at the plate, and he was eventually named the Class AAA player of the year.
“You could throw those guys against anybody,” Branch said. “Josh and Korey, it started with them on the mound. No matter who we played, we were going to be in the game.”
LaGrange also had a player in Brandon Monk who was a key missing piece the previous season.
The shortstop, who would go on to play a few seasons of professional baseball after high school, was injured and missed the 2003 playoffs.
Monk was back in 2004, and he had a phenomenal season.
“Brandon was healthy all year, and that made a big difference,” Branch said.
The Grangers also had a handful of players who knew what it was like to win a championship, albeit in a different sport.
Five members of that team, John Sherrer, Justin Patterson, Montoya Young, David Buchanan and Jon Kelton, were also on the 2003 LaGrange team that won a state championship.
“They learned how to compete, and how to work,” Branch said. “They learned how to win. That says a lot.”
Branch said all of the players did what it took to become a champion.
“Those guys swam at 6:30 in the morning. They did a lot of offseason work,” Branch said. “They paid the price. They wanted to be really good. They were lifting together. They put in a lot of time. They went above and beyond.”
In the end, all of that hard work and dedication paid off in a championship, although it didn’t come easily.
In Game 3 against Cartersville, LaGrange built a 9-2 lead, but by the bottom of the sixth inning, it was tied 10-10.
Noles, who’d hit a home run earlier in the game, came through with an RBI single to bring Monk in with the go-ahead run.
Patterson added another RBI single, and Sherrer capped the rally with a run-scoring double.
Edmondson was on the mound in the top of the seventh, and he got the job done.
The game ended with a double play that was started by third baseman Andrew Manning.
Branch has kept track of many of those players over the years, and he’s proud of what they’ve accomplished.
Many of them continued playing baseball in college, and a few of them went on to play professional baseball, including Noles and Monk.
Beyond the baseball field, Branch said the players have succeeded in life.
“You go through where they went after high school, and what they’ve done, it gives you an indication of what they were about,” Branch said. “They’ve done really, really well. To me that kind of puts you over the top when you have that kind of character.”
And Branch said that no matter where the players go, or what their roles were on that team, they’re a part of something that will last forever.
“If you’re on that team and you have a ring, you’re part of the fraternity,” Branch said.