Tested Grangers ready for state
By Kevin Eckleberry
LAGRANGE – They’ve seen it all.
The LaGrange Grangers faced a challenging regular-season schedule, and they came through it with an impressive 19-11 record.
While there were plenty of ups along the way, the Grangers had their share of downs as well, including a pair of close losses to the Troup Tigers that cost them a region championship.
When the dust cleared, though, the Grangers had accumulated a 9-3 Region 5-AAAA record to earn the number two seed, and they’ll be at home for the first round of the state playoffs.
LaGrange’s opponent will be Chestatee (13-17), which finished third in Region 7-AAAA.
“We feel like that anything that’s thrown at us tomorrow, and if we’re fortunate enough to move forward, that we’ve seen it before,” LaGrange head coach David Smart said on Thursday as the players hit the field for the final practice before the start of state play. “We talk all the time about how great preparation precedes great performance, so we feel like we’re prepared.”
LaGrange has played many of the state’s top teams this season, and it has fared well against them.
LaGrange beat Cartersville 2-1 at home, and it swept both regular-season games against Cedartown.
LaGrange also beat a 20-win Loganville team outside of the region, and it got a 12-2 win at Columbus.
The Grangers also had some costly losses, including two to Troup and one to Cartersville by a combined four runs.
“We can get beat by any team, but I also feel like we can beat any team,” said Willis Kemp, LaGrange’s senior shortstop. “It all depends on how we play. We’ve had our ups and downs, but one thing we do is we fight really hard. We’re not going to let anybody beat us easy.”
The one thing the Grangers have as much as just about anyone is experience.
Nearly every key position on the team is filled by a senior, including Kemp, who is a dynamic presence at shortstop and a key member of the lineup.
Another key senior is Champ Willis, who has been the starting catcher the past two seasons.
Willis’ role is a critical one.
He plays arguably the most important defensive position on the field, and he’s also a fixture in the heart of the lineup.
“I’ve really loved it,” Willis said of playing catcher. “Every game I can catch, I want to be out there.”
Brothers Ben Anderson and Matthew Anderson will likely be the two starting pitchers in today’s doubleheader, and they’ve both enjoyed strong seasons at the plate.
Jacob Vinson is an outfielder, and he has been a lock-down pitcher out of the bullpen.
Hunter Plant is the first baseman, David Sweat is an outfielder and an instigator from the leadoff position.
Senior Coy Tedescucci is a pitcher for the Grangers and has been effective when called upon, and Coleson Blackburn is a key bench player and he had a home run earlier this season.
Trevor John Norris was the starting second baseman earlier this season, but he’s been out of action for the past few weeks with an injury.
Many of those seniors have been together not just for their four years of high school, but they were teammates in recreation baseball as well.
“It’s crazy to think that this is definitely the last run, and it makes you want to go out with a bang,” Kemp said. “All of us, we’ve been playing together since we were 9 and 10, playing on Troup County all-stars. So it’s awesome being able to play with them. We’re definitely trying to go out with a bang. It makes it that much nicer if we can get those wins on Friday.”
A strength of LaGrange’s team is the pitching.
Ben Anderson and Matthew Anderson have both been terrific, and Vinson has been close to unhittable out of the bullpen.
A host of other pitchers have also been effective, so Smart has plenty of options if he has to go deep into the staff.
“We feel like we’ve got some guys that we can trot out there and can throw it across the plate,” Smart said. “We feel good about that.”
If the Grangers needed a third starter, it could be junior Cole Freeman, who missed the first half of the season with an injury.
“I think the pitching has really improved, especially with Cole being back,” Willis said. “He can give us five or six innings and throw strikes.”
LaGrange’s offense has been dynamic at times, but it has also struggled against some of the top-tier teams on the schedule.
“We’ve had some good times, and some times where we’ve struggled with it,” Smart said. “In the playoffs most of the time, there’s not a lot of scoring, just because of the fact that there’s such a heightened awareness. Everybody comes and brings it. And we’ve played in those games. So we feel good about the fact that we’re prepared for that.”
WHAT: First round of Class AAAA state tournament
HOW THEY GOT HERE: LaGrange finished second in Region 5-AAAA championship; Chestatee finished third in Region 7-AAAA
SCHEDULE: LaGrange will host a doubleheader today at 4:30 p.m., with the if-game scheduled for Saturday at noon