Panthers make it back-to-back titles
Published 11:44 pm Sunday, April 15, 2018
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
It wasn’t always a smooth journey.
The LaGrange College Panthers had their struggles earlier in the season, particularly during an 11-game stretch where they played nothing but road games.
Once the Panthers figured some things out and found the winning formula, though, they didn’t look back.
The Panthers closed the regular season by winning 15 of their final 20 games, and they stayed red-hot during the USA South tournament.
After winning its first three tournament games to reach the championship round, LaGrange College overwhelmed North Carolina Wesleyan 12-7 on Saturday afternoon to make it back-to-back conference titles.
That the Panthers would be in this position was far from a given.
It was a veteran and senior-dominated team that won the 2017 conference tournament on the way to a 40-6 record.
As the Panthers convened for a new season, there was only one every-day player in the lineup who was a starter a year ago.
“It was a lot of work bringing this group (to this point) because they’re so new,” LaGrange College head coach David Kelton said. “Trying to find that chemistry was tough. It took a while. And then once we found it, we had to learn how to play winning baseball.”
Jacob Gassert, who scored two runs in the championship game, said it “means the world” to repeat as conference champs.
“We’re such a young team, and it’s our first year really playing together,” Gassert said. “In the beginning we had some ups and downs, but toward the end we found our stride and started clicking, and we got hot in this tournament and just kept it rolling. It’s very exciting.”
Senior outfielder James Poropatic, the lone returning starter from last year’s team, said it was “awesome” to be the last team standing once again.
“Last year we had a bunch of older guys, a bunch of seniors,” Poropatic said. “This year it’s a whole new lineup. It took a while to gel together, and we’re playing our best baseball right now. It’s a great time for it.”
Poropatic did his part in the championship game.
He led the offensive outburst, going 5-for-5 with four RBIs, and he had a two-run double during a four-run fourth inning as the Panthers broke open a one-run game.
McKinley Erves had two hits and two RBIs, leadoff hitter Rhett Mixon had three hits and three runs scored, and tournament most valuable player Jack Layrisson had two hits and an RBI.
Austin Jones, who had a walk-off hit in the 10th inning of a win over Piedmont on Thursday, had a single and two RBIs in the championship game.
Dawson Weaver had two hits with an RBI, Jackson Patrick had a hit and drove in a run, Rhett Hollon had a hit, and Jacob Gassert scored two runs.
On the mound, Zach English and Gibson Bittner both excelled out of the bullpen.
English, a senior who was primarily a starting pitcher in previous years before making the transition to the bullpen this season, entered the game in the top of the third inning in relief of Austin Fain with a runner on first and no outs.
English got out of the third with no runs scoring, and he pitched three scoreless innings after that before giving up three runs in the top of the seventh.
“His innings that he pitched were probably the most crucial that we had all day,” Kelton said. “It was a nail-biter when he came in, and he helped bridge the gap (to Bittner). We had to have him eat up some innings for us.”
Bittner, pitching for the third time in four days, finished things off with two scoreless innings.
Bittner made three appearances in the tournament and threw 10 scoreless innings, and he was on the mound at the end of wins over Ferrum, Piedmont and N.C. Wesleyan.
“It was unbelievable,” Kelton said. “The confidence we have in him is through the roof. His composure as a freshman, you just don’t see that. He pitches like a junior or a senior.”
Had North Carolina Wesleyan won Saturday’s first game, they would played a winner-take-all game later in the day.
Jacob Gassert, one of four LaGrange College players who made the all-tournament game, said no one was thinking about playing two games on Saturday.
“We had it set in our minds today when we came out that we only needed one game, Gassert said. “It felt really good to get it out of the way.”
The Panthers started quickly with three runs in the bottom of the first inning, but the Bishops answered with four runs in the top of the second to take the lead.
The Panthers came right back with two runs in the top of the second on RBI singles by Poropatic and Layrisson, and they pushed four more runs across in the fourth inning to take a 9-4 lead.
With two more runs in the sixth inning the Panthers had an 11-4 cushion, but the Bishops got three of those runs back on a bases-loaded double by Caleb Narron in the top of the seventh.
That was it for the Bishops, though, and the Panthers capped the scoring with a single run in the eighth inning.
Bittner gave a two-out single in the top of the ninth, but he got a groundout to end the game and give the Panthers the win, and the celebration was on.
“It was 100 percent a team effort,” Kelton said. “All our pitchers did a phenomenal job. Defensively, we had a couple of little blunders, but outside of that we played really good defense in this tournament. And the execution offensively throughout the whole tournament was great.”
OF NOTE: For more photos, check out Facebook.com/LDNSports