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It’s game day for LaGrange

By Kevin Eckleberry

kevin.eckleberry@lagrangenews.com

LAGRANGE – They’ve been here before.

Two years ago, in fact, the LaGrange Grangers reached the quarterfinals of the state tournament, only to lose a heart-breaker to Allatoona.

Now the Grangers are back in the quarterfinals with a berth in the final four on the line, and they’re hoping for a better result.

LaGrange (26-3) will host Henry County (23-5) today at 7 p.m., with the winner moving a step closer to a possible state championship.

It has been a special season for the Grangers, and senior LaPerion Perry said everybody is doing their part.

“We came together, and we played hard, getting loose balls, and taking charges,” Perry said. “Everybody’s playing hard.”

While the Grangers returned a lot of gifted players from last season’s team, there were also some major holes to fill.

Four members of last season’s team are now playing college sports, and that includes Derieko Smith, who was a two-time region player of the year.

So that the Grangers would be in this position was hardly a sure thing.

“We lost the two-time region player of the year, a two-time all-state kid,” LaGrange head coach Mark Veal said. “And Alex (Dantzler) made solid contributions all year and is playing college ball now. And Qua Epps is playing college ball, and Mike Hardy was a starter for us. So we had to replace some kids.”

Veal said the task of preparing for a new season moved into high gear last summer.

“The process of finding roles for these kids, it dates back to last year, but really it starts over the summer when you start playing all these games,” Veal said. “You see in the summer who can do what, strength and weakness-wise. And then you start fall practice, and you get into the season. I guess roles are naturally defined.”

One man whose role was well-defined before the season began was Perry, who has been a remarkable player for the Grangers over the years.

The explosive guard was expected to be a leader on and off the court, and he has been.

In last week’s 85-74 win over Richmond Academy, Perry had his best game of the season as he scored 32 points.

Two other seniors, Kenan Gray and Bryan Fanning, were also starters last season, and they have been stalwarts in the post.

In the Richmond Academy game, Fanning scored 13 points, and Gray had nine points.

Another senior standout is guard Gabe Duckett, who had 12 points against Richmond Academy, and junior guard Bo Russell had nine points.

Seniors Jarious Freeman, Quez Jackson, D.J Cooley and junior Daz Williams don’t start, but they all play key roles on the team.

“I remember early in region play, we went up to Chapel Hill and Jarious came off the bench and hit five or six threes,” Veal said. “And Daz, when we went to Cartersville, he hit big shots in the first half to open the game up for us. And Quez, he’s played steady minutes all year for us. I know those guys come off the bench, but their contributions to our win-loss record and where we’re at is huge.”

Cooley said it’s a “selfless” team.

“Everybody knows their role,” Cooley said. “Everybody tries to do their best when they come in.”

Gray, whose dominant play inside has been a huge key for the Grangers, said all the players care about is finishing with more points than the opposition.

“As long as we win, that’s all that matters,” Gray said.

If LaGrange gets past Henry County, it would play either Upson-Lee or Thomson in the semifinals on Saturday in Augusta.

The championship game will be on March 10 at Georgia Tech.