Panthers riding high

Published 9:29 pm Monday, March 25, 2019


Daily News

These are good times for the LaGrange College baseball program.

During David Kelton’s first two seasons as the Panthers’ head coach, the team had a losing record.

While the record wasn’t reflecting it, Kelton believed he was bringing in the types of players who could help get the program back to the lofty status it had occupied during its best years under previous head coach Kevin Howard.

In 2016, things came together.

The Panthers went 30-13, and even though they were denied an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III tournament, the program had clearly turned a corner.

The Panthers took a giant leap forward in 2017, going 40-6 while at one point occupying the number one position in the national poll.

That Panthers won the regular-season and tournament championships in the USA South before going 2-2 in the national tournament.

A year ago, even though the Panthers were nearly starting over because of how many players were lost to graduation, the good times continued.

The Panthers went 30-18, won a second straight USA South tournament title, and once again went 2-2 in the Division III national tournament.

Flash forward to the current season, and it’s more of the same.

After sweeping a three-game series from Covenant, LaGrange College is 18-6 overall, and 11-3 in the USA South while moving into the 24th position in the poll, and that position will likely improve this week.

The Panthers have won five in a row and eight of their past 10 as they travel to Rome today for a non-conference game against the Berry Vikings.

It’s a team that has thrived at the plate, averaging more than seven runs per game, with everyone in the lineup capable of changing the game with a big hit.

The Panthers have excelled on the pitcher’s mound as well with a team earned run average of 3.38.

“It’s such a good group,” said Kelton, a Troup High graduate who played professional baseball for a decade before going into coaching. “This group really enjoys each other, really enjoys competing with each other. They just have a good time out there. With that being said, when it’s time to flip that switch, they get after it and they play really hard. With us, we’re trying to eliminate that one bad inning, and we’ve gotten a lot better at it just playing consistent baseball.”

LaGrange College had it all working in the three-game sweep of Covenant.

After winning Friday’s game 14-3, the Panthers finished the sweep by winning Saturday’s game 6-2 and 5-4.

In the series finale, the Panthers lost a 4-0 lead before pushing the go-ahead run across in the bottom of the eighth inning.

After Rhett Hollon doubled and Jack Layrisson reached on an infield single, Austin McDade’s squeeze bunt brought in Hollon with the go-ahead run.

Spencer Douches, who has been dynamic out of the bullpen, finished Covenant off to secure the save.

Layrisson had four hits for the Panthers, including a triple, and Joe Ruth had a two-run home run.

It was the first collegiate home run for Ruth, who had eight RBIs in the series.

McDade added two hits, and Liam Carbone drove in a run.

Austin Fain started and pitched five scoreless innings, and Gibson Bittner worked the next two innings and gave up two runs.

Douches, who is 3-0 with a 0.72 ERA, finished things off with two scoreless innings.

In Saturday’s first game, the Panthers built a 6-0 lead on the way to the 6-2 win.

Leadoff hitter Cael Chatham had three hits and three runs scored, Ruth had two hits and two RBIs, McKinley Erves had two hits and an RBI, EJ Churchich had a hit and two RBIs, and Layrisson had a hit and a run scored.

Richie Post was the starting pitcher, and he was outstanding, working around six hits to hold Covenant scoreless in six innings.

Post had nine strikeouts, and he didn’t walk anyone.

Tanner Chafin pitched the final three innings to secure the save.

In the series opener on Friday, the Panthers banged out 18 hits on the way to the 14-3 win.

Ruth had two hits with a triple and four RBIs, Erves had three hits and three RBIs, Hollon had two hits and three RBIs, Carbone had two hits and an RBI, and Judd Moore had two hits.

JR Robinson got the ball for the series opener, and he threw six solid innings, allowing three runs on six hits.

Coston Anderson and Austin Brown combined for three scoreless innings.

Everyone in the lineup contributed during the series, and Kelton said “they’re committed to the approach that we have in place. They’re working hard. We’ve finally got everybody in sync, and guys are starting to really get comfortable in the box. We’re just having a lot better at-bats now. Even some of the guys that struggled in the fall with their approach are adapting to how we need to do things. And you can really see some change within some of them and how much better their at-bats have been.”

While the Panthers haven’t had any trouble scoring runs, the pitching has been lights out as well.

“They’re doing such a great job of throwing strikes and competing and not giving up any free-bees which you always want,” Kelton said. “We’ve just got a staff full of strike throwers, which is always fun. You’ll get hit a little bit because of that, but they’ll always put you in a position to win. To be able to back them up, we’ve got a solid defense.”

Kelton added that “our starting pitchers have done their job getting five, six, seven innings, and then our bullpen has done its job.”

LaGrange College will look to stay hot with a road win over Berry College today.

LaGrange College returns to conference play with a three-game series at Maryville beginning Friday.

The Panthers will hit the field today short-handed, with some key players out of action with injuries.

The good news for the Panthers is that the players who’ll be asked to step into the lineup have gotten plenty of playing time this season.

“We’ve played more this year than we ever have,” Kelton said. “We’ve put up a bunch of different lineups. Even if we get injuries like this, you’ve got guys that might have been starting a week before. We’ve been utilizing our depth more this year than we ever have.”

While today’s game at Berry won’t impact LaGrange College’s position in the conference, it’s still an important game.

If the Panthers don’t win the conference tournament, they’ll need to receive an at-large bid in order to play in the NCAA tournament.

“You’re trying to fight for a regional bid,” Kelton said. “You get a loss or two here or there mid-week, can sometimes be what gets you out, or gets you into a regional. So they’re all important.”

After the Maryville series, LaGrange College will play its final eight regular-season games at home.

Then it will be time for the Panthers to begin their quest for a third consecutive conference title.

As well as the Panthers have been playing, Kelton believes the best is yet to come.

“It’s a very talented group, but also a group that’s really bought into how we play and understands the style I want,” Kelton said. “I hope we can continue this year to take off. I still feel this group has another level, and the future is extremely bright as well.”