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Grangers are final-four bound

By Kevin Eckleberry

kevin.eckleberry@lagrangenews.com

LAGRANGE – They’re final-four bound.

The LaGrange Grangers swept Stephens County on Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Class AAAA state baseball playoffs, and they’ll play either Marist or Madison County in the semifinals next week.

After beating Stephens County 6-2 in Wednesday’s first game, LaGrange finished the series sweep with a 5-0 victory.

The Grangers improved to 6-0 in the playoffs, and they’re now four victories away from the second state championship in the history of the baseball program.

LaGrange’s lone state title came in 2004.

“The final four, the name itself is really big,” said senior Jacob Vinson, who closed out both of Wednesday’s wins on the mound. “That’s something that we’ll hold onto forever that we made it there. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but we’re really happy that we made it this far. But we want to keep going.”

Ben Anderson, the senior who was the winning pitcher in Game 1, said there haven’t been any shortcuts to reaching this point.

“We’re in here in the morning before school almost every day in the fall,” Anderson said. “It’s been a lot of hard work. We’re just trying to go as far as we can, go out on a winning note.”

David Smart, LaGrange’s second-year head coach, is happy to see his players enjoy this level of success.

“I’m so proud of them,” Smart said. “They come to work every day, and they believe in what we’re selling. It’s been a real pleasure just to be around them. The big thing is, they really care about each other.”

Throughout the playoffs, the pitching has been outstanding for the Grangers, and that was the case on Wednesday.

In the first game, Anderson went 6 1/3 innings to get the win, and Vinson recorded the final two outs.

Anderson held Stephens County scoreless through six innings before running into a bit of trouble in the seventh and allowing two runs.

In the second game, John Morgan was terrific, throwing 5 1/3 scoreless innings, and Vinson got the last five outs for the save.

Anderson and Morgan were both able to pitch with the lead.

The Grangers scored a first-inning run in Game 1 to go up 1-0, and they scored two runs in the second inning of Game 2 to take a 2-0 lead.

“With a lead, I know I can fill up the zone, and you just make them beat you,” Anderson said.

In the clinching game, Morgan was a big part of the story.

The junior has been terrific in both of his playoff starts.

He was on the mound for a 10-0 victory over Chestatee in the first round, so he hasn’t allowed a run in either of his postseason starts.

“John, he’s been a really good pitcher for us this year, usually in a relief role,” Vinson said. “But he really stepped up for us tonight, and he threw his heart out. He was great. He kept us in the game.”

After a scoreless first inning, the Grangers broke through for two runs in the top of the second.

Hunter Plant’s RBI single brought in Matthew Anderson with the first run, and Cole Freeman scored on a Vinson bunt.

Freeman didn’t break for home right away, but as soon as the throw went to first, he took off and slid head-first across the plate.

It was still a 2-0 game when Stephens County threatened in the bottom of the sixth.

With two outs and runners on first and third, freshman third baseman Charles Crawford made a leaping catch on a hard-hit line drive, perhaps saving two runs.

LaGrange then pushed three key insurance runs across in the top of the seventh.

Ben Anderson led off with a triple, and he scored on a base hit by David Sweat to make it a 3-0 game.

After a Champ Willis base hit, Sweat and courtesy runner Trevor John Norris both scored on wild pitches to extend the lead to 5-0.

Vinson set Stephens County down in order in the bottom of the seventh to finish it.

In the first game, the Grangers jumped on top with a run in the bottom of the first.

Ben Anderson singled and stole second, and after a Sweat infield hit, Willis drove in a run with a groundout.

The Grangers extended the lead to 4-0 with three runs in the third inning.

With two outs, Willis started the rally with a double, and Willis Kemp followed with an infield hit to put men on the corners.

Matthew Anderson then ripped the ball to left field for an RBI single, and Freeman followed with a two-run double, and the Grangers were ahead by four.

The Grangers added a single run in the fifth inning.

Willis walked, Kemp singled, and Matthew Anderson’s double brought a run in and gave LaGrange a 5-0 lead.

In the top of the sixth, the Indians appeared to be in business after loading the bases with one out, but the Grangers turned a double play to get out of the inning.

Kemp fielded a ball at shortstop, he stepped on second for an out, and he whipped the ball to first to complete the double play.

In the bottom of the sixth, the Grangers scored their final run.

Vinson, Ben Anderson and Sweat each walked to load the bases, and following a pitching change, Willis walked to drive in a run and make it 6-0.

The Indians strung a few hits together in the seventh inning and scored two runs, but Vinson came in and put out the fire to end it.

After a 30-minute break, the Grangers returned to the field and took care of business in Game 2, and now it’s off to the final four.

“It’s just awesome,” Willis said. “I just can’t describe it right now. You hear stories about teams going to the final four. I’m just glad to be a part of this team.”

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