LaGrange College baseball team flying high

Published 11:10 pm Wednesday, March 8, 2017

By Kevin Eckleberry

LAGRANGE – They felt they’d done enough.

Despite losing in the USA South baseball tournament last season, the LaGrange College Panthers had a 30-13 record, and they were one of the hottest teams in the country as they waited to find out if they were going to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III tournament.

When the bids were announced, the Panthers were on the outside looking in, and that was a massive disappointment for a team that had accomplished so much.

So, how did the Panthers respond to that setback?

They worked hard in the offseason, and they committed themselves to making sure there would be no debate if they found themselves in the same situation this year.

So far, so good.

After taking two of three from Piedmont last week, LaGrange College has a phenomenal 15-2 record, and it has risen to 10th in this week’s poll.

The Panthers made one of the biggest moves of any team in the country.

LaGrange College made its debut appearance in last week’s poll at number 16, and it moved up six spots.

Emory (12-1), a fellow Georgia school, sits atop the Division III rankings.

LaGrange College opened the season with six straight wins before falling to Birmingham-Southern, which is ranked fourth in this week’s poll.

LaGrange College then ripped off eight straight wins before losing to Piedmont on Saturday, and it bounced back on Sunday for an 11-6 win.

LaGrange College head coach David Kelton said the ranking is an indication of the respect the program is starting to receive.

“Last year, you felt at times is anybody taking notice,” Kelton said. “And toward the end of the year, we could tell people were starting to see where we were going. And coming into this year, a little bit at the beginning of the year, the same. Now, getting to the top 25, and getting to 16, and now being at 10, it’s one of those where what we’ve been doing is catching everybody’s eyes and ears. It’s exciting for the guys, and exciting or the program that we’re in this position.”

This is the first time Kelton, who is in his fourth season as the Panthers’ head coach, has had a team full of men he recruited.

Kelton took over the program in 2013 following the departure of long-time coach Kevin Howard, who is now at Reinhardt.

The Panthers had losing records in Kelton’s first two seasons as head coach, but the pendulum is obviously swinging the other way now.

“It took a little bit to get it going,” Kelton said. “We had to get the guys in that were going to play our style of baseball, and do the things we wanted done. Now, they’re continuing to play strong baseball.”

Kelton gives the credit to a group of players who work so well together.

“It’s a group of guys that have really bonded, and play unselfish baseball,” Kelton said. “They play real fundamental, team baseball, and they play so well together. They push each other, and hold each other accountable.”

The Panthers are a complete team.

They’re hitting .326 as a team, and they’re averaging close to nine runs per game.

Casey Bell, the current USA South player of the week, is hitting .392 with three home runs and 24 RBIs, and James Poropatic leads the team with a .407 average, which is particularly impressive considering he’s hitting in the number nine spot in the order.

Blake Butcher, who was the USA South player of the year in 2016, is getting it done again this season.

Butcher is hitting .373 with three home runs and 19 RBIs.

“He’s someone other teams always account for,” Kelton said.

Tavin Thompson, the former Callaway Cavalier, has been terrific from the leadoff position.

Thompson, who transferred from Darton College before the 2016 season, is hitting .366 with two home runs and 19 RBIs.

Another standout in the lineup is Blane Swift, who is hitting .339, and he leads the team with six stolen bases.

Joe Pradat is hitting .327, and Chad Pigg (.260) has two home runs and 11 RBIs.

Cain Sauls is struggling a bit with a .230 batting average, but he leads the team with 14 walks and has an on-base percentage of .400, and he has two home runs and 15 RBIs.

While most lineups have a weak link somewhere, that’s not the case with the Panthers.

“Our order is very deep,” Kelton said. “Our nine-hole hitter is one of the hottest hitters in the league in James Poropatic. You can go down the line.”

That unforgiving lineup is a key reason the Panthers are one of the country’s hottest teams.

“When they get hot, they have a lot of confidence, and we can play some real good baseball for an extended period of time,” Kelton said. “They’re kind of proving that.”

The Panthers can pitch the ball as well.

Starters Ryan Broaderick (3-0), Andrew Weekley (3-1) and relief pitcher Jonathan Fleckenstein (3-1) each have three wins, and Zach English and Austin Brown are both 2-0.

Broaderick, Weekley and English have started most of the games this season, and they have all done well.

Fleckenstein headlines a bullpen that has been superb.

LaGrange College will look to keep it going when it hosts Huntingdon on Friday for the start of a three-game USA South series.

“Our guys always get up for that one,” Kelton said. “We’ve had some tough games with them to where it’s gone either way. These games are always highly competitive and intense.”

Whatever happens this weekend and beyond, Kelton said the mindset of the team will be the same.

“We got here by working hard,” Kelton said. “Nothing changes.”