LaGrange Toyota Invitational returns

Published 11:47 pm Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Daily News

It’s that time again.

The LaGrange Toyota Invitational, which has been a fixture in LaGrange for nearly two decades, will return today, with eight teams participating.

The host LaGrange Grangers will be joined by seven other teams, and each team will play four games in the three-day tournament that goes through Saturday.

There will be two four-team pools, and the top finishers from each pool will face off in the championship game on Saturday at 7 p.m.

The participating teams are LaGrange, Brookwood, Buford, South Forsyth, Mobile Christian (Ala.), Niceville (Fla.), Providence (Fla.) and Trinity Christian (Fla.).

LaGrange will be in a pool with Niceville, South Forsyth and Trinity Christian.

The teams in the other pool are Brookwood, Buford, Mobile Christian and Providence.

It’s an elite field that features some of the top teams, and players, in the country.

It is, according to LaGrange head coach Donnie Branch, one of the strongest fields in the history of the tournament.

“It’s one of our better ones,” Branch said. “I’m not sure it’s our best one, because we had five of the first 14 picks one year.”

Branch is referring to the 2008 LaGrange Toyota Invitational that had a star-studded group of players.

Among the players participating that year was American Heritage’s Eric Hosmer, who was the number three pick in the draft.

American Heritage, which had three players who would eventually be first-round picks, went on to win a state and national championship in 2008.

“That one would be hard to top,” Branch said. “But this one is really strong. It’s going to be tough.”

Here’s a look at the participating teams:

LAGRANGE: The host Grangers (2-3) are under the direction of Donnie Branch, who

has returned for his second tenure as LaGrange’s head coach.

During his first go-around, Branch led the LaGrange program from 1989 to 2012, and he won more than 500 games with a state championship in 2014.

Branch has taken over a program that enjoyed success under previous head coach David Smart, and that included a state semifinal appearance in 2017.

Among LaGrange’s key players is pitcher and third baseman Charles Crawford.

Crawford has pitched well this season, and he had a four-inning stint in the season opener against Hardaway where he didn’t give up a hit in four innings.

Brant Williams and Matthew Morgan have also pitched effectively for the Grangers.

In a 4-0 win over Griffin, Williams and Morgan combined for a three-hit shutout.

Jake Cardwell, Walton Lanier, Sam Yates, Wesley Kuhn and Blake Hadaway have each pitched effectively for LaGrange.

Considering LaGrange is scheduled to play four games in three days, head coach Donnie Branch figures every pitcher has a chance to get called upon.

“If you’re a pitcher, you’re definitely on stand-by,” Branch said.

The Grangers are looking to get their offense on track.

LaGrange scored 14 runs in the season opener against Hardaway, but it has been limited to nine runs in the past four games.

In the season opener, everyone in the lineup contributed.

Crawford had three hits and three RBIs, and he finished the game with a walk-off home run in the sixth inning.

Mason Green and Trent Bailey each had two hits and two RBIs, Morgan had two hits with an RBI, Cole Crawford had a hit and two RBIs, Landon Tucker and Cole Sanders each had a hit and an RBI, Williams had a hit, and Lanier drove in a run.

LaGrange also enjoyed offensive success in an 8-0 win over Griffin with eight hits.

Will Alford, Bailey and Williams each had two hits, and Kuhn had a double.

Branch’s message to the players is that they need to be at their best, or it could be a long day at the ballpark.

“It’s really hard,” Branch said. “You need to play really well to have a chance. If you play poorly, you get 10-run rule.”

Because of the caliber of players participating, there will be numerous college and professional scouts in attendance, and Branch figures that’s a great thing for his team.

“The competition’s really good. It’s good for our folks,” Branch said. “They get to compete against top competition with a ton of scouts here. It’s really good exposure for us.”

BUFORD: Buford, which finished second in Class AAAAA last season, was ranked 38th in the Perfect Game preseason poll.

Among Buford’s top players is Ramsey David, an all-state pitcher the past two seasons who has committed to Auburn.

Last year, David went 7-3 with 2.08 earned run average with 107 strikeouts in 73 1/3 innings.

Another standout for Buford is center fielder Austin Turner, who hit .398 with 21 RBIs and 33 stolen bases last season.

That came on the heels of a sophomore season when he hit .429 with 21 RBIs.

BROOKWOOD: Another traditional powerhouse participating in the tournament is Brookwood, which reached the Class AAAAAAA semifinals last season.

Brookwood, which won last year’s LaGrange Toyota Invitational, will bring a new-look team to this year’s tournament.

Brookwood was hit hard by graduation, with only three starters returning from last year’s team.

One of those returnees is shortstop Wesley Franklin, who hit .424 last year.

Fellow infielder Will Mize hit .324 with 31 RBIs in 2018.

Also returning for Brookwood is pitcher Alex Flood, who went 10-1 with a 1.86 ERA last season.

Brookwood is coached by Titus Martin, who played baseball at LaGrange College.

SOUTH FORSYTH: South Forsyth, which lost to Brookwood in the second round of the Class AAAAAAA state tournament last season, brings a strong team to the LaGrange Invitational.

South Forsyth has one of the state’s top pitchers in Landon Sims, who had a 0.90 ERA last season.

Sims was also a force at the plate with seven home runs.

Peyton Pressley, who had a 1.53 ERA in relief duty, is another key member of South Forsyth’s pitching staff.

TRINITY: Trinity Christian, which reached the semifinals in Class AAAA in Florida last spring, will make the trip from Jacksonville to participate in the LaGrange Toyota Invitational.

Among Trinity’s key players is senior Dylan Simmons, who hit .421 with 14 RBIs last season and was also one of the team’s top pitchers.

Matt Crump is Trinity’s top returning batter after hitting better than .400 last season, and second baseman Conner Aldrich and shortstop Bryan Muniz anchor the infield.

NICEVILLE: Niceville was one of the top teams in Florida last season, finishing with a 24-4 record while playing in Class AAAAAAA.

Niceville, which opened the season with a 15-game winning streak, outscored its opponents 268-82 while averaging nearly 10 runs per game.

Pitching wise, four members of the team had ERAs of 2.30 or lower.

While Niceville has to replace some talented players, the team appears poised to enjoy another special season under head coach Rod Taylor.

Among the returnees are four players who have signed baseball scholarships.

One of the marquee players on the team is senior and future LSU Tiger Rece Hinds, who hit .494 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs last season.

Another key player for Niceville is Connor Walsh, who hit .438 with 28 RBIs in 2018.

Harrison Dorsett, who has signed with Ole Miss, and Tennessee signee Sean Goodwin headline the pitching staff.

Dorsett said his goal for this season is to “defend the district title and go farther than any other Niceville team has gone before. I think this year we have the ability to do so.”

MOBILE CHRISTIAN: Mobile Christian heads into the season as the defending Class AAA state champion in Alabama.

That was the team’s third state championship in four years, and its second in a row.

Last year’s team went 10-1 in the playoffs, and it swept Lauderdale County in the state-championship series by scores of 6-1 and 11-0.

Among the men who’ll be tasked with trying to lead Mobile Christian to a third state championship is catcher Ethan Hearn, who has signed with Mississippi State.

Hearn hit .416 with 14 home runs and 39 RBIs last season, and he was Alabama’s Class AAA player of the year.

First baseman JT Lastorka, who has signed with Coastal Alabama, hit .360 with 34 RBIs last season.

PROVIDENCE: Providence went 25-5 last season, and it lost to Trinity Christian in the Class AAAA Florida state playoffs.

Five members of Providence’s team have signed baseball scholarships, including catcher Nathan Hickey (Florida), who hit .419 with seven home runs last year.

Infielder Tyler Callihan, who has signed with South Carolina, hit .440 last season with six home runs, and on the mound he was 9-1 with a 1.30 ERA.

Ben Weeks was also a pitching standout last year with a 6-2 record and a 2.49 ERA,



At Granger Park

4:30 p.m. – South Forsyth vs. Trinity

7 p.m. – LaGrange vs. Niceville

At LaGrange College

7 p.m. – Brookwood vs. Buford


At Granger Park

Noon – Mobile Christian vs. Providence

2:30 p.m. – Brookwood vs. Mobile Christian

5 p.m. – Buford vs. Providence

7:30 p.m. – LaGrange vs. South Forsyth

At LaGrange College

7 p.m. – Niceville vs. Trinity Christian


At Granger Park

10 a.m. – LaGrange vs. Trinity Christian

12:30 p.m. – Buford vs.  Mobile Christian

4:30 p.m. – Fifth-place game

7 p.m. – Championship game

At Callaway High

10 a.m. – Brookwood vs. Providence

12:30 p.m. – South Forsyth vs. Niceville

4:30 p.m. – Seventh-place game

7 p.m. – Third-place game