Special season for Panthers
Published 11:36 am Friday, May 25, 2018
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
After dropping their opening game in the NCAA Division III regional in North Carolina, the LaGrange College Panthers knew they were facing an uphill battle.
The Panthers were faced with the realization that they’d need to win at least four consecutive games to capture the regional and advance to the World Series.
They almost made it happen.
After winning two in a row, LaGrange College had a 3-0 lead over Christopher Newport.
Had the Panthers held on to win that game, they would have advanced to the championship game of the regional.
It wasn’t meant to be.
Christopher Newport hit a pair of home runs and scored four runs in the seventh inning, and it held on for a 4-3 win.
Randolph-Macon beat Christopher Newport 11-2 to win the regional and advance to the eight-team World Series.
For LaGrange College, the loss to Christopher Newport put an end to a terrific season.
The Panthers went 30-18, won a second straight USA South championship, and made it to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.
Last year’s team went 40-6, and nearly every key contributor from that team graduated.
After some early stumbles this season, the new-look Panthers found their footing and rolled from there.
“It was not pretty early in the season,” Kelton said. “And at one point, I think we were sitting at 7-10. And we were not playing good baseball. We turned it around fast and were able to play fundamental baseball. We learned how to win. That’s the battle right there. Once you figure that out, it was fun down the stretch.”
After going 4-0 in the USA South tournament, LaGrange College had nearly a month off before beginning play in the regional.
In the tournament opener, Richie Post delivered a stellar starting performance and Gibson Bittner and Zach English excelled in relief, but Randolph-Macon won 2-1.
Facing elimination, LaGrange College returned to the field the following day and beat Alvernia 2-1.
Senior Collin Barrett got the ball for the Panthers, and he responded by allowing one run in 8 2/3 innings.
English, who pitched in every game in the regional, got the final out to preserve the 2-1 victory.
With the season on the line, Kelton had ample confidence in Barrett.
“He was steady Eddie all year,” Kelton said. “It was the main reason we went to him. You know what you’re going to get out of Collin. We knew if we lost a game, we had Collin to get us back in the series. He was just so steady.”
The Panthers scored single runs in the fourth and fifth innings, and that was just enough.
Dawson Weaver had an RBI triple, and McKinley Erves was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to drive in a run.
Still facing elimination, LaGrange College beat The College of New Jersey 9-5 on Saturday to stay alive.
English, pitching for the third consecutive game, threw 4 1/3 innings of shutout baseball in relief of Austin Fain to get the win and improve to 5-0 on the year.
Erves, Rhett Hollon and Dawson Weaver each had two hits, and Jacob Gassert and James Poropatic each had RBI triples in the first inning.
Rhett Mixon, Jackson Patrick and Jones also had hits as the Panthers enjoyed their most productive game of the tournament.
Later in the day, LaGrange College was back on the field against Christopher Newport with a spot in the title game on the line.
Kelton and his coaches looked at their options, and they decided to come back with English to start against Christopher Newport.
English, pitching in a game for the fourth time in three days, threw six shutout innings before giving up a three-run home run in the seventh inning.
“Going into that game against Christopher Newport, we thought we’d go two or three innings and turn it over to Bittner and let him ride,” Kelton said. “The next thing you know, we look up and they didn’t have any answer for him. They figured it out in three at-bats.”
Nicholas Baham came to the plate with two men on in the seventh inning, and Kelton decided to let English see if he could get him out.
“We knew he was a potential home-run threat, but just about everybody in that lineup is a home-run threat,” Kelton said. “So we looked at the chart, and he’d given up a double and single, but nobody had done anything against him all night. This guy had struck out, and hit a tapper back to the mound, and didn’t have any good swings. He just happened to catch that one right.”
Bittner, who had a phenomenal freshman season, allowed the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning before throwing three scoreless innings.
English pitched a combined 11 1/3 innings in the four games combined, and the six innings he threw against Christopher Newport were a season high.
“He was absolutely amazing,” Kelton said. “I hated that we couldn’t get him the win.”
The Panthers had their chances to pull even, most notably in the bottom of the ninth inning.
With Dawson Weaver on third base with two outs, James Poropatic hit a groundball to the third baseman.
The throw was off-target, and the first baseman went up to make the catch and he swiped at Poropatic with his glove.
Kelton felt the tag wasn’t made, but the umpire called Poropatic out.
Had Poropatic been safe, the game would have been tied, and the Panthers would have been in great position to get the win.
Instead, Poropatic was called out, and the Panthers’ season was over.
Despite the heart-breaking way the tournament ended, Kelton was proud of the effort his players gave throughout the three days.
“It was the way they played,” Kelton said. “The energy, the passion, just the grit they played with. It was unbelievable.”
Looking forward, the Panthers should have a great chance to compete at a high level again next season.
“This group showed how close we truly are to making it to the World Series,” Kelton said. “And we’ve got just about everybody coming back. The guys gained valuable experience this year, and also big-game experience. They won a (conference) championship, and then they had the ability to go into a regional and figure out how to win.”
Kelton is looking to lock up his recruiting class, and he things the incoming players will help shore up the openings left by the departed seniors.
“We’ve got a good group coming in,” Kelton said. “What we already have, we really like. We feel like we have filled holes where guys are graduating. We feel like we’ve added some depth with this recruiting class. It’s just putting it together.”