Tourney time for Panthers

Published 11:17 am Thursday, May 17, 2018


Daily News

The LaGrange College Panthers are hoping the third time is the charm.

For the third time in the history of the baseball program, LaGrange College is participating in an NCAA Division III regional.

LaGrange College’s first NCAA appearance came in 2010 under previous coach Kevin Howard, and it won its first game before losing its next two.

Last year, with head coach David Kelton at the helm, LaGrange College returned to the NCAA regional, and it went 2-2 after winning its first two games.

Today, LaGrange College will make its third appearance in an NCAA regional.

LaGrange College is one of six teams participating in a regional in Holly Springs, N.C., and the winner will advance to the Division III World Series in Wisconsin.

LaGrange College is the number six seed, and it will play top-seeded Randolph-Macon today at 11 a.m.

“In order to get to that World Series and win the big one, you have to try to make yourself a fixture in the regional,” said Kelton, who is in his fifth season as the Panthers’ head coach.

The Panthers looked like they had a great shot to win their regional last year after opening with two straight wins, but two consecutive losses ended their season.

Now, with an almost entirely new team, LaGrange College will try to take that next step and make it to the eight-team World Series.

“It’s going to be our second year in a row, and hopefully this year we can make a deeper run,” said Jacob Gassert, one of the Panthers’ top hitters with a .326 batting average. “It’s definitely going to be exciting to go back.”

LaGrange College was 7-10 overall and 1-4 in the USA South when it lost the Huntingdon on March 3.

Since then, the Panthers have won 21 of 27 games, and they won all four of their games in the USA South tournament.

On a team with so many new pieces following the departure of a large and talented senior class, there was an adjustment period, and it didn’t help that the Panthers went a month without playing at home.

“It was a lot of work bringing this group (to this point) because they’re so new,” 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.”

Kelton said having the players buy into the team-first mentality was critical.

“We keep talking to the guys, it’s playing unselfish baseball, team baseball, and just getting those guys to buy into it,” Kelton said. “We had all that turnover from last year, but still, if you buy into playing fundamentally sound baseball, and playing for each other, you can win a lot.”

The Panthers have been a prolific hitting team, and they boast a team batting average of .301.

As was the case a year ago, the Panthers have a lineup that doesn’t have any weak links.

“One through nine right now can put the ball in play hard, and everyone’s just doing their job, and we know what the end goal is,” Gassert said. “That’s the biggest thing, is just keep the at-bats rolling.”

Freshman Jack Layrisson is the Panthers’ leading hitter with a .358 batting average, and he has four home runs, seven triples, eight doubles and 42 RBIs.

Gassert and Rhett Mixon are both hitting .326, and they have 32 and 22 RBIs, respectively, and Mixon leads the team with 13 stolen bases.

McKinley Erves has a .325 average, and he’s among the team leaders with 35 RBIs, and senior James Poropatic is hitting .322 with 42 RBIs. Dawson Weaver (.321), Austin Jones (.312) and Jackson Patrick (.304) are all hitting above .300, and Jones has 30 RBIs.

Freshman Gibson Bittner headlines a deep pitching staff.

Bittner is 6-1 with two saves and a 1.38 earned run average, and he had three outstanding outings in the conference tournament.

Another member of the relief staff, Zach English, is 4-0 with three saves a 2.70 ERA.

Austin Fain (6-3, 3.11 ERA), Richie Post (3-3, 3.13 ERA), and Colin Barrett (7-4, 4.23 ERA) have been the primary starters this season.

LaGrange College’s first-round opponent will Randolph Macon (31-7-2), which is fifth in the latest poll.

Joseph Tuzzolo leads a powerful Randolph-Macon lineup with a .378 batting average, 11 home runs and 54 RBIs, and Cole Migliorini is hitting .366 with six home runs and 43 RBIs. Jeff Butler is hitting .348, and he has eight home runs and 37 RBIs.

Randolph-Macon’s top two pitchers are Colin Selby (10-2, 2.89 ERA) and Nick Roth (9-1, 3.33 ERA).

The other four teams in the regional are second-seeded The College of New Jersey, third-seeded Denison, fourth-seeded Christopher Newport, and fifth-seeded Alvernia.

It’s a tough field, but Kelton believes his team can compete with anyone.

“It took this group awhile to figure out to win ballgames and how to play together,” Kelton said. “When they go out and execute, they can be as good as anybody.”