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Panthers begin championship quest

By Kevin Eckleberry

kevin.eckleberry@lagrangenews.com

LAGRANGE – They’re headed to Virginia.

The LaGrange College Panthers have known for nearly a month they’d be in the NCAA Division III baseball tournament, they just didn’t know where they’d play, or who their opponents would be.

Those questions were answered on Monday when the full field for the NCAA tournament was released.

There are eight regional sites, including one in Danville, Va., and that’s where LaGrange College will be along with five other teams.

The eight regional winners will advance to the Division III championship in Wisconsin next week.

Joining LaGrange College in the South Region are Salisbury, Roanoke, Otterbein and Rowan, and Emory.

LaGrange College will open play in the double-elimination tournament against Otterbein on Thursday at 2:30 p.m., and it will play again on Friday either at 11 a.m. or 6 p.m.

The tournament continues through Sunday, and the last team standing will head to Appleton, Wisc. for the national championship  beginning on May 26.

The Panthers (38-4) head into the NCAA tournament with more wins than any team in Division III, and they’re ranked first in the D3.baseball.com poll, as well as the ABCA/Collegiate Baseball poll.

LaGrange College has won eight consecutive games, and that included a 6-0 victory over Piedmont on April 15 that wrapped up the USA South tournament championship.

LaGrange College closed the regular season with a three-game sweep of Greensboro, and the finale of that series was nearly a month ago.

Now, the Panthers are ready to chase a national championship.

“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 statement,” said David Kelton, LaGrange College’s fourth-year head coach.

First up will be the regional round, and LaGrange College has only played one of its potential opponents.

On March 21, LaGrange College went on the road and beat an Emory team that was ranked first in the country 9-4.

LaGrange College’s first-round opponent will be an Otterbein (Ohio) team having an outstanding season.

Otterbein beat Mount Union 14-8 on Saturday to win the Ohio Athletic Conference title and secure an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

It was the Cardinals’ first conference since 2007, and they have won five consecutive games overall to improve to 31-12.

While Otterbein is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since that 2007 season, LaGrange College has reached this point for the first time since 2010.

That LaGrange College team, which was under the direction of Kevin Howard, beat Salisbury in the first round before losing its next two games.

The Panthers thought they’d done enough to secure an NCAA bid a year ago.

Even though the Panthers lost in the USA South tournament, they had a 30-13 record, and they were one of the hottest teams in the country.

The Panthers didn’t receive an at-large bid, though, putting a disappointing end to a stellar season.

This season, the Panthers have left nothing to chance.

If they’d gotten upset in the conference tournament, they would almost surely have earned an at-large bid.

LaGrange rolled through the conference tournament with a 4-0 record, though, and it wrapped up the championship with the 6-0 win over Piedmont.

Senior Josh Smith was the winning pitcher against Piedmont, and he pitched 8 1/3 scoreless innings.

“Every time we’ve got down, someone else picks us up,” Smith said. “That’s how it is. It’s a family atmosphere on this team, and it starts with coach Kelton. Coach Kelton has done a great job with us, and he’s a fantastic coach.”

Here’s a look at the South Region:

Participating teams followed by seeding

Salisbury (1), LaGrange College (2), Rowan (3), Emory (4), Otterbein (5), Roanoke (6)

Schedule

Thursday

11 a.m. – Salisbury vs. Roanoke

2:30 p.m. – LaGrange vs. Otterbein

6 p.m. – Rowan vs. Emory

Friday

11 a.m. – Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser

2:30 p.m. – Game 1 winner vs. Game 3 loser

6 p.m. – Game 2 winner vs. Game 3 winner

Saturday

11 a.m. – TBD

2:30 p.m. – TBD

6 p.m. – TBD

Sunday

Noon – TBD

3:30 p.m. – TBD (if necessary)