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Panthers win USA title

By Kevin Eckleberry

kevin.eckleberry@lagrangenews.com

LAGRANGE – They were on a mission.

One year ago, the LaGrange College Panthers were reeling after they were eliminated by Huntingdon in the USA South baseball tournament.

It was a deflating moment for the Panthers, and they received another hit when they failed to receive an at-large invitation to the NCAA Division III national tournament despite their excellent record.

The Panthers were not going to let history repeat itself.

The Panthers came into this year’s tournament as the clear team to beat after rolling through the regular season with a 16-2 conference record, and they’d only lost four games overall.

“Our goal was to win the championship, and they’ve been fighting for it all year,” LaGrange College head coach David Kelton said. “You get that number one seed, but once you get here you’ve still got to grind through this tournament.”

The Panthers handled that grind just fine.

After winning its first three games to reach the championship round, LaGrange College was matched up with Piedmont on Saturday afternoon at Cleaveland Field in Williamson Stadium.

The Panthers (35-4) took care of business.

With senior Josh Smith throwing 8 1/3 scoreless innings and the offense pounding out 13 hits, LaGrange College rolled to a 6-0 victory to sew up the conference championship and earn an automatic invitation to the NCAA tournament.

When relief pitcher Jonathan Fleckenstein got a strikeout to end it, the players charged toward the mound for a celebratory dogpile.

The Panthers had their championship.

“There’s nothing better,” said senior Casey Bell, who was the USA South player of the year. “Last year hurt big time, and we brought back basically everybody. There are too many seniors on this team. We weren’t going to let that happen again. It’s on our field, it’s our time, and we knew nothing was going to stop us.”

The story of the tournament was the Panthers’ pitching.

LaGrange College’s offense has been among the country’s best this season, but the pitching has been terrific as well.

In the four USA South tournament games, LaGrange College’s pitchers gave up three runs while tossing two shutouts.

In the championship game, Smith delivered a masterful performance.

Smith went 8 1/3 innings, and he worked around six hits while striking out five before turning the game over to Fleckenstein.

It was a special moment for Smith, a senior from McDonough who joined the program before the 2016 season.

“He was phenomenal,” Kelton said. “We needed him to take that fourth spot. Our first three starters did a great job, and he stepped up.”

Smith called it an “awesome opportunity” to be on the mound for the clinching game.

“When coach told me last night that I would get the start today, I knew that I was going to do everything I could to get my family a championship,” Smith said. “We’ve been working hard for the two years that I’ve been here. Coach brought us in, and we all sat down and said we wanted this. We got close last year, and we came up a little short. This year, we knew we had the team, and we worked our butts off all season to do it.”

In the first three tournament games, it was starters Richie Post, Andrew Weekley and Ryan Broaderick shutting down opposing hitters.

Fleckenstein appeared in three games and gave up an unearned run, while Austin Perez threw two scoreless innings in a 2-1 win over North Carolina-Wesleyan.

“People sleep on our pitching, but they’ve been there every game,” Bell said.

LaGrange College’s offense had its most productive offensive game of the tournament on Saturday.

James Poropatic had three of the Panthers’ 13 hits with an RBI, and Blane Swift had two hits and two RBIs.

Blake Butcher and Jackson Patrick each had two hits, leadoff hitter Tavin Thompson had a hit and two runs scored, Cain Sauls had a hit and a walk, and Chad Pigg had a hit.

The Panthers started quickly with two runs in the first inning on RBI singles by Bell and Swift.

LaGrange College added two more runs in the third inning.

Butcher drove in a run with a fielder’s choice, and Swift had an RBI with a bunt.

The Panthers added single runs in the fifth and eighth innings.

Butcher, after fouling off multiple two-strike pitches, had an RBI single in the fifth inning, and Poropatic had a run-scoring hit in the eighth.

LaGrange College will wrap up the regular season with a three-game series against Greensboro beginning on Saturday with a doubleheader and concluding on Sunday.

After that, it’ll be on to the NCAA tournament for the Panthers.

“We truly believe we’re one of the best teams in the nation, and we want to get on that national stage and make a statemen,” Kelton said.

ALL-TOURNAMENT: LaGrange College had five players make the all-tournament team. Josh Smith, based on his lock-down pitching performance in the championship game, was named the tournament’s most valuable player. Also making the all-tournament team was shortstop Tavin Thompson, a senior from Callaway High. Andrew Weekley, who threw eight shutout innings in a 3-0 victory over Maryville, also made the all-tournament team, as did outfielder Blane Swift and second baseman Joe Pradat.

OF NOTE: For photos, check out Facebook.com/LDNSports