Grangers set for for final-four test
Published 4:04 pm Wednesday, May 17, 2017
By Kevin Eckleberry
LAGRANGE – The journey began four months ago when the members of the LaGrange High baseball team convened for their first official preseason practice.
In reality, the work began well before that.
There were early-morning workouts during the fall, there were the hours spent in the indoor hitting facility, there were travel-baseball games, and there were numerous other ways the players worked to improve themselves, to make sure they’d be as prepared as possible by the time the season rolled around in February.
The hope was that the hard work, the diligence shown by the players, would result in something special.
That plan has come together nicely.
When the Grangers take the field today against the Marist War Eagles, they will be one of only four teams remaining in Class AAAA.
A tournament that began with 32 teams has been whittled down to four, and one of those teams will be celebrating a championship next week.
That the Grangers are in this position is a testament to the work ethic of the players, as well as the coaches who lead them and encourage them.
No one is more appreciative of their effort than David Smart, who has enjoyed tremendous success during his two seasons as LaGrange’s head coach.
“I’m so proud of them,” Smart said after his team beat Stephens County to reach the final four. “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.”
A year ago, LaGrange made it to the second round of the state playoffs before losing a hard-fought series to Gainesville.
As a new season approached, expectations were high.
Some key players from last year’s team graduated, including two men in Jake Howard and Larkin Easterwood who are currently playing college baseball, but this is an experienced roster that features 10 seniors, most of whom either start or get significant playing time.
High expectations have never won anything, though, so no one on this team took anything for granted.
The players worked, they got dirty, they practiced hard, and they listened to their coaches, took their advice to heart.
In any sport, there are no shortcuts to success, and this group realizes that.
“We’re in here in the morning before school almost every day in the fall,” senior Ben 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.”
Teams that enjoy extended playoff success almost always have outstanding pitching, and LaGrange is no exception to that rule.
The Grangers have played six playoff games, and they’ve given up seven runs.
Ben Anderson (3-0), John Morgan (2-0) and Matthew Anderson (1-0) have started the six games, and Jacob Vinson has done his usual great work in relief by closing out three games.
Another common theme among teams that hang around for a while in the playoffs is an ability to strike from anywhere in the lineup.
The Grangers do that.
From Ben Anderson in the leadoff spot to number nine hitter Jacob Vinson, everyone is getting it done.
David Sweat and Champ Willis are the playoff leaders with eight hits apiece, Willis Kemp and Cole Freeman each have seven hits, Matthew Anderson and Ben Anderson have six hits each, Vinson and Hunter Plant each have four hits, and Charles Crawford has three.
Once the Grangers get on base, they press the issue and force opposing defenses to make plays.
Sometimes that results in a player getting thrown out, but that aggressive base-running has also yielded plenty of positive results.
In the first game of the Stephens County series, a LaGrange player got thrown out at the plate, but that didn’t change the way the Grangers played the team.
“We got thrown out in the first inning at home, and that’s fine,” Smart said. “He made a heck of a throw. He made a great throw. That’s kind of how we play. You have to do that, put pressure on them.”
Teams that contend for state championships also tend to excel on the field, and that’s another check-mark in the Grangers’ favor.
The Grangers haven’t been flawless defensively, but they haven’t let one mistake turn into another.
“You have to have a little bit of amnesia,” Smart said. “We talk all the time about making the next play. If you start taking all the negative stuff around with you, you’re not going to be successful. Baseball is such a failure game anyway. You have to have a real short memory.”
Beyond the Xs and Os of the game, Smart said a key to this team’s success is the genuine affection the players have for each other.
Many of them have been playing together for nearly 10 years, and that includes a group that helped a Dixie Youth Baseball team win a World Series in 2009.
“They know what their first job is, and that’s to love one another,” Smart said. “They understand that. That’s one of the things we preach since we got here. They’ve embraced it. It’s been a real pleasure.”
One of the players who was a part of that 2009 championship team was Kemp along with current teammates Matthew Anderson and Ben Anderson.
Now, those three men are closing in another championship, and that would be a fine way for them to close out their high-school careers.
“I’m so proud of our team, and of everybody,” Kemp said. “Everybody’s put in so much work. It’s awesome. This win is bigger than any win I’ve had in my life. We’re excited, and we’ve worked hard. Coach Smart has us out here every day working hard. It pays off. We’re all just coming together and learning how to win. It’s pretty fun.”
LAGRANGE VS. MARIST
WHEN: Today, 4:30 p.m. (doubleheader); Thursday, 5:55 p.m. (if necessary)
WHERE: Granger Park
HOW THEY GOT HERE: LaGrange, after finishing second in Region 5-AAAA, beat Chestatee, Northside and Stephens County in the playoffs; Marist, after finishing second in Region 7-AAAA, beat Cedartown, Cairo and Madison County in the playoffs
ON THE LINE: The winner will play either Heritage-Catoosa or Blessed Trinity in the Class AAAA state-championship series next week.