It’s a homecoming for Branch
Published 11:19 am Thursday, May 17, 2018
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
When the 2012 baseball season came to a close, Donnie Branch stepped down as the LaGrange High head coach.
At the time, Branch was also the head football coach, and he gave up his baseball position to focus on his duties on the gridiron.
Now, six years after he last coached a baseball game for the Grangers, Branch is returning to lead the program.
Branch, who was inducted into the Georgia Dugout Club Hall of Fame in 2009, is taking over the program following the departure of
David Smart, who was the Grangers’ head coach for the past three years.
For Branch, it’s like coming home since LaGrange High holds such a special place in his heart.
“My kids went there, and I worked there for 28 years,” Branch said. “I was there when we built the current field, when we put the current bleachers in, when we put the dugout in. It’s pretty fun to get a chance to come back.”
Branch began coaching at LaGrange in 1986, and he led the baseball program from 1989 to 2012.
Branch was also a successful defensive coordinator, and he was a part of four different state-championship teams.
In baseball, Branch helped build the program into one of the state’s best, and the team won a state championship in 2004.
In Branch’s final season in 2012, LaGrange reached the state quarterfinals.
Todd Herrington, Branch’s long-time assistant, was the head coach for three seasons, and Smart took over in 2016 and was the coach for three years.
While Branch hasn’t been coaching for the past six years, he has remained actively involved in the sport, and for the past few years he has been the director of operations for Game On Training.
Branch will continue his work with Game On while returning to the world of coaching, and that’s really all he’s ever wanted to do.
“My dad, who passed away in 2014, and his famous line was, when I was coming out of college, he said I sure hope you can coach, because if you can’t coach, you’re going to starve to death,” Branch said. “I think this is what I do, and I’m really a high-school coach.”
By the time Branch stepped down in 2012, he’d compiled a record of 519-241, and he guided seven teams to the state semifinals, and his 2004 team won it all with a victory over Cartersville.
Branch is taking over for another accomplished coach in David Smart, who will be the head softball and baseball coach at Denmark High in Forsyth County.
Smart led LaGrange to the state semifinals in 2017.
“The good news, they’ve been very well-coached,” Branch said. “Coach Smart, and staff, are outstanding baseball coaches. So I don’t have any concern about guys not being well-coached. All the kids in this program have been well-coached.”
One area Branch does plan on addressing is what he feels is the need for a more involved weight program, and that’s something he’ll begin working on immediately.
“I see a real need to get the weight room aspect going. That was always huge for us,” Branch said. “That’s the most obvious thing we’ve got to work on is getting bigger and stronger. In order to compete at a high level, more important than at-bats and throwing and catching right now, is the need to physically get bigger, faster and stronger. If everybody on the team does that and they have good baseball skills, it makes you better. Plus, the kids that won’t to play college ball, it makes them a better recruit.”
Since LaGrange’s season ended with a loss to Northwest Whitfield in the opening round of the state playoffs, Branch has been meeting with the players who’ll be returning.
Branch has assured each of them that they’ll get a “clean slate.”
“The other coaches may have an impression, but as far as I’m concerned, I feel like it’s a clean slate for the kids,” Branch said. “I want to see who wants to lift, and who wants to work, and that kind of thing.”
Branch said he’ll let the players know exactly what he expects from them.
“I’m as straight a shooter as comes, and they’ll know it,” he said.
Branch added that “I really feel like I’m a player’s coach. It’s my goal to set standards for our program that I think are important, that our staff thinks are important. And we meet them every day. And the result of the game, they take care of themselves. We may win a game, and we may be disappointed in the effort we put forth. And we may lose a game, but I’m proud of our effort, our preparation and all that.”
Branch said that his hope is to have the players provided much of the leadership.
“In a perfect world, our team is run by the players,” Branch said. “You’re good when players police themselves. There’s a standard, and they hold each other accountable.”
During the summer, while there won’t be a LaGrange High team, Branch said he’ll try to watch the players on their various travel teams.
“The plan in the summer is, they’re going to play wherever they’re going to play, and I’ll come watch them play,” Branch said. “The big plan is, we’re going to start lifting. We’re going to have our weight program going. And I think it’s as important as their playing at this point. And if they haven’t been well-coached, that would be a problem. But they’ve been well-coached.”
Branch said he’s already working on a schedule for the 2019 season, and he’s also in the process of putting together a field for the LaGrange Toyota Invitational.
“We’ll do our offseason stuff all fall and all winter, and then the season starts January 15,” Branch said. “People are already calling about scheduling, and I’ve been working on the tournament, trying to get it going.”
Branch said he’s encouraging the players to participate in more than one sport, and he’s pleased to see that some of them have joined the football team.
“We’ve got a lot of kids playing football, and I’m excited about that,” Branch said. “Coach (Chuck Gibbs), he got out probably three or four that didn’t play last year. When we won state, we had four football starters. They won football and baseball state championships the same year. There’s a toughness level. So I love it.”