Grangers fight for final-four berth
By Kevin Eckleberry
LAGRANGE – The journey continues.
When the Class AAAA state baseball playoffs began, there were 32 teams with dreams of winning a state championship.
Now, only eight teams have a chance to realize that goal, and the LaGrange Grangers are one of them.
LaGrange, which finished second in Region 5-AAAA, has beaten Chestatee and Northside to reach the elite eight.
Now, LaGrange is two wins from a spot in the final four, and Stephens County is standing in the way.
The two teams will play a doubleheader today at 4:30 p.m. at Granger Park, and if needed, a third and deciding game would be Thursday at the same time.
Stephens County, the number four team from Region 8-AAAA, has knocked off two higher-seeded teams to reach this point.
After beating Northwest Whitfield in the first round, Stephens County got past Luella in the second round.
Both series went the full three games, and Stephens County beat Luella 3-0 in game 3 on Saturday.
“They pitched really well,” LaGrange coach David Smart said. “They’re really good defensively. They’re very similar to us. That’s what I told our kids. They pitched it good, they throw and catch real well.”
The Grangers have caught fire at the right time with seven straight wins.
The Grangers’ hopes of winning a region title were dashed with a 2-1 loss to Cartersville on April 14, but they haven’t lost since.
LaGrange finished the regular season with three straight wins, and it is has won all four of its playoff games.
In the opening round, LaGrange crushed Chestatee, winning both games 10-0.
The second-round series was more competitive, but the result was the same.
LaGrange won the first game 5-2 before finishing the sweep with a 5-3 victory.
“Our formula is the same from that day we opened up until now,” Smart said. “Throw and catch at a high level, throw strikes, hit line drives and ground balls. We feel like if we do that better than you do, we’ll have a great chance to be successful.”
For most of the key contributors on this team, this will be their final go-around as Grangers.
It’s a senior-dominated team, and Smart has stressed to the players to savor this moment and make the most of it.
“It’s an opportunity, a special opportunity,” Smart said. “We’ve talked about that. This is the only time this group will ever be together. So this group itself, what do you want your legacy to be? We’ll be LaGrange High School next year, but we won’t have the same exact group next year. It’ll never be the same team again. We talked about that, and what do you want your legacy to be, and how do you want to be remembered? It’s definitely an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often. You want to cherish it, and enjoy it, and embrace the moment, and play well.”
Many of the players have been together since their days as youth-baseball players, and Smart believes their close relationship has helped fuel their success.
“I think one of the biggest things I feel like we have is, they really care about each other,” Smart said. “That makes it fun for you as a coach. That makes it fun for the players. They like to come to the yard every day and be around those guys.”
LOOK BACK: LaGrange reached the quarterfinals by sweeping Northside 5-3 and 5-2.
In the 5-2 victory that clinched the series, Matthew Anderson and Jacob Vinson combined to get it done on the mound.
Anderson started and pitched four innings and was the winning pitcher, and Vinson threw three scoreless innings to get the save.
Senior catcher Champ Willis had a big game for the Grangers with four hits and two RBIs, and David Sweat had two hits and an RBI.
Matthew Anderson had two RBIs, Ben Anderson had a hit and two runs scored, Charles Crawford had a hit and two walks, and Vinson had a hit.
In Game 1, a 5-2 victory, Ben Anderson got the seven-inning complete game, and all three runs he allowed were unearned.
The Grangers pounded out 10 hits, and Cole Freeman and Vinson each had two of them, and Vinson had an RBI.
Willis Kemp had a hit and two RBIs, Crawford had a hit and an RBI, Sweat, Willis, Matthew Anderson and Hunter Plant each had a hit, and Ben Anderson drove in a run.
LOOK AHEAD: If LaGrange beats Stephens County, it will face the winner of the series between Marist and Madison County in the final four on May 17.
On the other side of the bracket, the quarterfinal matchups feature Heritage vs. Hardaway, and West Laurens vs. Blessed Trinity.
WHEN: Today, 4:30 p.m. (doubleheader); Thursday, 4:30 p.m. (if necessary)
WHERE: Granger Park
WHAT: Quarterfinals of Class AAAA state playoffs.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: LaGrange, the number two seed from Region 5-AAAA, beat Chesatee and Northside; Stephens County, the number four seed from Region 8-AAAA, beat Northwest Whitfield and Luella