Panthers ready to chase conference title

Published 4:52 pm Monday, April 10, 2017

By Kevin Eckleberry

LAGRANGE – They were one of the hottest teams in the country.

As the LaGrange College Panthers prepared for the USA South baseball tournament a year ago, they’d won 14 of their previous 15 games, and they had a 14-game winning streak snapped in their final conference game of the regular season.

The Panthers were unable to carry that hot streak over to the tournament, though, and they ended up losing a pair of games and finishing third.

The Panthers are hoping for a better result this season.

LaGrange College, which took two-of-three from Maryville over the weekend to improve to 31-4, will be the number one seed for the USA South tournament that gets under way on Wednesday.

The double-elimination tournament, which features the conference’s top eight teams, will be held at Cleaveland Field at Williamson Stadium, and assuming there are no significant weather delays, a champion will be crowned on Saturday.

The Panthers will be the clear tournament favorite.

The Panthers, who are second in both major NCAA Division III national polls, haven’t lost two games in a row all season, and they’ve dominated their conference opponents.

With the two wins over Maryville, LaGrange College finished with a 16-2 conference record, which was three games better than second-place finisher Ferrum.

It doesn’t hurt the Panthers’ chances that they’re playing at home, where they’ve only lost once all season, and that was to non-conference foe Birmingham-Southern.

Against its conference foes, LaGrange College is 9-0 at home.

The Panthers have everything working.

The Panthers are an offensive juggernaut, averaging more than eight runs per game, and they also have an outstanding pitching staff with a team earned run average well below 3.00.

It is also a veteran, senior-dominated team, and most of this year’s key players were starters a year ago when the Panthers went 30-13.

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

The other tournament participants will be Ferrum, North Carolina-Wesleyan, Greensboro, Maryville, Huntingdon, William Peace and Piedmont.

The champion will earn an automatic invitation to the NCAA Division III tournament, and a year ago that team was Huntingdon, which beat LaGrange College twice.

LaGrange College’s only two conference losses this season came on the road against Piedmont and Maryville.

The Panthers have answered each one of their four losses with a win the next time out, an indication of the team’s consistency and drive.

“I’m excited about the caliber of baseball they’re playing day in and day out,” Kelton said.

LaGrange College wrapped up the number one seed with Friday’s 3-1 win over Maryville.

On Saturday, Maryville won the first game of the doubleheader 4-3, but LaGrange College bounced back to win the next game 11-4 and take the series.

In the 11-4 win, the Panthers were down 3-2 through six innings, but they scored eight runs in the final three innings to turn a tight game into a blowout.

Tavin Thompson had three hits and an RBI, and James Poropatic had three hits, including two doubles, with three runs scored.

Casey Bell and Blane Swift each had two hits and two RBIs, Austin Jones had a hit and two RBIs, and Joe Pradat and Blake Butcher each had a hit and an RBI.

Andrew Weekley started and pitched seven innings to get the win and improve to 7-1, and Jonathan Fleckenstein threw two scoreless innings to finish it.

In Saturday’s first game, LaGrange College had a 2-1 lead through four innings, but Maryville rallied for the 4-3 win.

Thompson had two of the Panthers’ eight hits, and Bell and Billy Peatross each had a hit and an RBI.

Freshman Richie Post started and went 5 2/3 innings to take his first loss of the season.