Panthers earn spot in title game
Published 12:26 am Saturday, April 14, 2018
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
They were reeling.
When the LaGrange College Panthers dropped the first two games of a road series against Huntingdon in early March, they’d lost six of seven games, and they were 1-4 against USA South foes.
The Panthers have come a long way since then.
LaGrange College (25-15) overwhelmed North Carolina Wesleyan 12-3 on Friday afternoon to advance to the championship game of the USA South tournament, which will be today at noon at Cleaveland Field in Williamson Stadium.
The Panthers won the conference championship a year ago, but that was a veteran team made up mostly of seniors who had been starting for two or three years.
The new-look Panthers may have had their struggles earlier in the season, but they’re rolling now.
“We hit a low point about midway through the year,” LaGrange College head coach David Kelton said. “It could have gone either way. They came together and started playing good baseball.”
The Panthers finished the regular season by winning 15 of their final 20 games, so they entered the conference tournament with plenty of momentum.
After opening with a 2-1 win over Ferrum on Wednesday, LaGrange College rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Piedmont 5-4 in 10 innings on Thursday.
Thursday’s game was close most of the way, but LaGrange College exploded for eight runs in the eighth inning to put it away.
While the Panthers ended up winning comfortably, they had to come from behind for the second straight day.
Trailing 2-1, the Panthers tied it with a run in the top of the third before taking the lead with a run in the sixth inning, and they added another run in the seventh.
N.C. Wesleyan got within one in the bottom of the seventh, with Zach English doing some nice work in relief to limit the damage in that inning.
The Panthers took over in the eighth inning, with Rhett Mixon, Jacob Gassert and Jack Layrisson each coming through with RBI hits.
After getting their third win in the tournament, the Panthers were able to sit back and watch the remaining teams fight it out for a spot in the championship game.
N.C. Wesleyan beat Piedmont to advance to the title game.
“I expect a tough game,” Kelton said. “I expect it to be a very close game, as they tend to be.”
The Panthers had a monster offensive day in Thursday’s win.
Jack Layrisson had three hits, including two in the eighth inning.
Layrisson led off the eighth with a double, and he had a two-run triple later in the inning.
Jacob Gassert had three hits and three RBIs, Rhett Mixon had two hits and two RBIs, Jackson Patrick and Dawson Weaver each had two hits and an RBI, Austin Jones had a hit and an RBI, and James Poropatic had a hit.
Colin Barrett was the starting pitcher for the Panthers, and he gave up three runs in six innings.
After allowing two singles to start the bottom of the seventh, English got the call, and he held the Battling Bishops to one run, so the Panthers still had the lead.
“It could have easily escalated,” Kelton said. “It’s trying to minimize damage.”
Tanner Chafin pitched a scoreless ninth inning to finish it, and Kelton was glad to be able to save some wear on English’s arm.
“We were able to get English out of the game, to where we didn’t burn him,” Kelton said. “He can pop back tomorrow and be fine. But he was going to have to go about nine outs, and he ended up going six outs and somebody else was able to get the last three.”
After English’s nice work in the bottom of the seventh, the Panthers went to work in the top of the eighth,
Layrisson started things with a double, and McKinley Erves followed with a bunt single.
Erves was attempting to sacrifice, but the bunt was so well-placed that he beat the throw to first.
“That’s just trying to apply pressure, and constantly trying to create something,” Kelton said. “As you see, sometimes fielding a bunt can be difficult. It puts a lot of pressure on your defense.”
After Austin Jones walked to load the bases, Patrick was hit by a pitch to drive in a run, and Weaver got a suicide squeeze bunt down to bring in another run. Mixon kept it going with a two-run single, and and Gassert’s RBI hit plated another run.
When Layrisson came up for the second time in the inning, he drove in two runs with a triple, and he scored on a wild pitch to cap the eight-run rally.
The Panthers scored single runs in the first, third, sixth and seventh innings.
Gassert had RBI singles in the first and seventh innings, Poropatic knocked in a run with a bunt in the third inning, and Jones had a sacrifice fly in the sixth inning.
The Panthers will go for a second straight tournament title today, and Kelton is glad to be at home.
“You can look at it a lot of different ways,” Kelton said. “Some people might look at it as a lot of pressure, but what an opportunity to be able to play at home, to have your own crowd who can hopefully pull you through.”