Exceptional year for LaGrange High sports
LAGRANGE – The old gym was rocking.
It was late in the regular season, and the LaGrange Grangers were playing a critical home basketball game against the Northside Patriots.
If the Grangers could find a way to win, they’d secure the number one seed for the Region 1-AAAAA tournament.
With moments remaining in the first overtime period, Derieko Smith put up a shot that was off the mark.
Mike Hardy went up and got the rebound, and before he hit the ground, he banked the ball in to give the Grangers the lead with one second left on the clock.
The gym exploded, with the standing-only crowd erupting, led by the always boisterous student cheering section.
Hardy was fouled on the play, and he made the free throw to complete the three-point play.
The Patriots were able to get a desperation shot away that didn’t fall, and the Grangers had a thrilling 71-68 victory before a packed house at LaGrange High.
That was part of a special season for the Grangers, who won a region championship and advanced to the second round of the state tournament under first-year head coach Mark Veal.
Along the way, the Grangers won their share of nail-biters, including the thriller against Northside.
A week later in the Region 1-AAAAA championship game, Smith got to be the hero when he went coast-to-coast for a layup in a 56-55 win over Shaw.
That was also part of a stellar year in sports for LaGrange High.
The school enjoyed success across the spectrum, with numerous teams and individuals making their mark.
Athletes from 11 different sports made it to state, and that included the boys’ tennis team that reached the quarterfinals of the state tournament.
LaGrange always has a stellar all-around sports program, and the 2015-2016 school year was no exception.
Here’s a look back at the year in sports for LaGrange High:
SPECIAL SEASON: After losing two close ones to Columbus, the LaGrange High boys’ tennis team was ready for the rematch.
In the Region 1-AAAAA championship match, it was LaGrange beating Columbus 4-1 to capture the title.
LaGrange continued to build on that momentum, winning two matches in the state tournament to make it to the elite eight before falling short against Dunwoody.
It was still a fantastic season for the Grangers, who added to the proud tradition the program has established under coach Kenny Moore.
In the region tournament and state tournament, the lineup remained mostly the same.
It was Blade Kendall, Pierce Skinner and Tony Choi in singles, a combination of Connor Mahan, Jas Singh and Gavin Battle at number one doubles, and Tiger Lakhwani and Jackson Kuerzi at number two doubles.
“In the beginning of the season, I thought we would be right here, beating Columbus to win region and going all the way to at least the elite eight,” Choi said after a second-round state win. “And that’s what we’ve done. I can’t be any happier than right now.”
Moore said the team peaked at precisely the right time.
“We’ve probably had better teams before, but I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team that’s playing this well, at this time,” Moore said.
It was also a successful season for the LaGrange girls’ team, which finished third in the region to qualify for the state tournament.
Moore said all of the players improved over the final few months, and he said it all came down to their work ethic.
“I’ve never had a group of young girls work like them,” Moore said. “I text them to come meet me on Saturday, and they’re here. We meet Sunday afternoon, they’re here. They’re as eager to get better as any group I’ve had.”
SWIMMING STRONG: A quartet of LaGrange High swimmers, led by Allie Paschal, made their way to the state swim meet in February.
Paschal delivered a stellar performance at the state meet in Atlanta, swimming away with two top-five finishes.
Paschal was third in the 100-yard backstroke, and she finished second in the 50-yard freestyle.
Also for LaGrange, senior Christine Yin made her final state appearance a memorable one with an eighth-place finish in the 100-yard freestyle.
Sydney Mauldin added a 15th-place finish in the 100-yard butterfly.
LaGrange’s 200-yard medley team delivered a strong performance that was one of the state’s best.
The team of Paschal (backstroke), Camille Preston (breakstroke), Mauldin (butterfly) and Yin (freestyle) finished fourth.
Those same four swimmers also finished 11th in the 400-yard freestyle relay.
CHEERING SUCCESS: LaGrange High’s cheerleading team finished 11th in the Class AAAAA state finals.
LaGrange had a strong season that included a third-place finish in the Region 1-AAAAA competition, and a sixth-place showing in the state sectional.
“They’ve had a mission all year. Their mission honestly is to make it to state,” LaGrange coach Stephanie Hall said. “Class AAAAA in the cheerleading world is extremely difficult. There are some very talented teams. We knew going in it would be difficult. They had had perfect routines both days (at the sectional and state finals). They were excited. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”
At the state sectional, LaGrange posted the highest score in the history of the program.
“We had the highest score ever in LaGrange High School history,” Hall said. “And (in the finals), our goal was to match that, and we missed it by one point. We were tickled. It was phenomenal. We were really proud.”
OH, THE MEMORIES: In a stretch of eight days, the LaGrange boys’ basketball team gave its home fans two amazing finishes.
First up was Mike Hardy’s buzzer-beating putback to beat Northside in the regular season, and then Derieko Smith went coast-to-coast for a game-winning layup against Shaw in overtime of the region-championship game.
Those plays were part of a fantastic season for the Grangers, who went 23-6, captured a second straight region title and made it to the second round of the state tournament.
LaGrange only lost two games on its home court all season, and head coach Mark Veal said the fans had a lot to do with that.
“The fan support has been tremendous all year,” Veal said. “In the region tournament, the games where we came back and won, the fan support has been a factor. It gave us that extra juice to pull it out down the stretch. If you’re playing somewhere else, I’m not saying you’re not going to do it, but it’s harder.”
Smith would go on to be named the region’s player of the year, and LaPerion Perry was also an all-region player.
Smith was also selected as an all-state player.
WHAT A SPRING: LaGrange’s baseball team went on the road and won a thrilling Game 3 against Union Grove to win a first-round series in the state playoffs.
After the two teams split the first two games, it came down to a decisve third game, and LaGrange found a way to win 7-6 in nine innings.
The Grangers lost the lead in the seventh and eighth innings, but they stayed strong and ended up getting the epic road win.
“One thing you have to say about this group, regardless of what happens from here on out, they know how to compete, they know how to overcome adversity, they know what it means to be resilient, and they really care about each other,” said David Smart, LaGrange’s first-year head coach. “I think that’s what helps them play hard.”
Unfortunately for the Grangers, the season came to a close the following week when they lost to Gainesville in the second round of the playoffs.
It was still a terrific season for the Grangers, who were led by all-region players Jake Farrar, Larkin Easterwood, Jake Howard and Ben Anderson, among others.
ON THE PODIUM: A pair of men who meant so much to the LaGrange High wrestling program over the years ended their careers by winning medals at the state tournament.
Emmanuel Mann finished fifth at 285 pounds, and Guy Wegienka was sixth at 195 pounds.
Matt Watford, Dakota Wilson and Dominque Copeland also made it to the state finals for LaGrange.
Wegienka saved his best for last.
He was an accomplished wrestler through his junior season, but he took it to another level as a senior and had a dominant year.
He won four individual titles, including the Area 1-AAAAA championship.
“Everything has come together,” Wegienka said. “I’ve gotten to that point where I have the strength where I can turn somebody, and the technicality to take on somebody that’s just as strong.”
Wegienka won titles at the Chattahoochee River Wrestling Association tournament, the Hardaway Invitational, the Gary Silva Invitational and the area tournament.
Mann and Wilson also won area titles for LaGrange before making nice runs at state.
WINNING SPRING: LaGrange High’s girls’ soccer team had a strong showing last spring, finishing third in Region 1-AAAAA behind two of the state’s top teams, Columbus and Northside.
LaGrange fell to Starr’s Mill in the opening round of the Class AAAAA state tournament.
Along the way, LaGrange beat Troup and Callaway to capture the county championship.
The win over Callaway that wrapped up the regular season gave LaGrange 10 wins, which head coach Andy Fritchley said was a nice accomplishment considering the difficulty of the schedule.
“Getting to the 10-win mark was important to us,” Fritchley said. “That’s a good mark.”
Leading the way for LaGrange this season was a talented group of seniors, including leading scorer Reagan Peters who signed a letter of intent to play soccer at Kennesaw State.
LaGrange’s boys’ team, which was rebuilding after losing so many seniors from the 2015 team, came up short in its bid to make it to the state tournament.
LaGrange did end its season with a 1-0 win over rival Callaway.
BRINGING HOME A MEDAL: LaGrange’s Jeremiah Wright and Erica Emory each wrapped up their high-school careers by earning a place on the awards podium at the state track and field meet.
Wright, who was also a football standout at LaGrange, placed sixth in the triple jump, and Emory was fifth in the high jump.
Wright began doing the triple jump late in his senior season, and he obviously had a knack for it.
“It was my first year doing that event, and I started late,” Wright said. “I did about four track meets triple jumping. They thought, put me in the triple jump, and see what happens.”
Emory transferred from Heard County to LaGrange for her senior season, and she made quite an impact.
Christopher Ford also made it to the state finals in the 110-meter hurdles.
Distance running standout Sam Bowie finished first in the 3,200-meter run at the state sectional to qualify for state, but he was unable to compete in the state finals because of an illness.
Bowie had a stellar high-school career in track and field and cross country, winning numerous medals in both sports.
Bowie and Alaina Tomlinson each won region titles in the 3,200 and Tobias Spence claimed an area title in the high jump.
MAKING IT TO STATE: LaGrange High’s softball team finished fourth in Region 1-AAAAA to qualify for the state tournament where it fell to Woodland in the first round.
LaGrange was paced by its four seniors, Destiny Gay, Cassidy Creed, Leighton Parker and Miranda Hamer.
Gay battled back from a knee injury to become a key contributor late in the season.
“She’s been fighting hard to get back out there,” LaGrange head coach Dewey Lee said before the state tournament. “We’re glad to have her.”
FALLING SHORT: It was a heart-breaking way to end the football season.
The LaGrange Grangers came into the final week of the regular season with a chance to secure a playoff spot with a win over Northside, but they fell short.
LaGrange then participated in a three-team mini-playoff, needing to finish second or higher to make it through to state.
Unfortunately for the Grangers, they lost to the Columbus Blue Devils, and their season was over.
LaGrange had to play without star quarterback LaPerion Perry, who was injured in the game two days earlier against Northside.
“We’re going to come back to work, and analyze everything, and look at the whole season,” LaGrange head coach Dialleo Burks said following the loss to Columbus.
FINISHING IN STYLE: In his final cross-country meet, Sam Bowie raced to a third-place finish at the state competition in Carrollton.
Bowie and all of the runners had to deal with a muddy, sloppy 3.1-mile course, and it was Jake Shewbert of Flowery Branch taking the top spot in Class AAAAA with a time of 16 minutes, 49 seconds.
Colton Page of Allatoona (16:54) was second, and Bowie (16:59) was next across the finish line.
Bowie had a phenomenal season that included a region championship, a victory in the at&t Starr’s Mill meet that featured some of the state’s top runners, and finally a spot on the podium at the state meet.
LaGrange’s Alaina Tomlinson, who also had a fantastic season that included a region title, capped her season with a 16th-place finish at the state meet.
For the LaGrange boys’ team, Colby Scott (20:01) was the next runner behind Bowie, and he was followed by Colby Scott (20:01), Reed Henderson (21:11), Joshua Turman (21:37), Kadarius McCauley (21:47), Collin Taylor (21:52) and Drew Morgan (22:40).
On the girls’ side, Tomlinson completed the course in a time of 21:26 to earn her 16th-place finish.
Ellie Doerr (26:49) was next for LaGrange, and she was followed by Brianna Stansbury (26:52), Avery Bakarich (27:25), Audrey Tomlinson (27:58), Emily Bakarich (29:35) and Mary Beth Callaway (29:45).
Reach Kevin Eckleberry at (706) 884-7311 or on Twitter @lagrangesports