Three-peat for Panthers
Published 12:32 am Tuesday, April 30, 2019
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
Their belief never wavered.
Three innings into Sunday’s USA South championship game, the LaGrange College Panthers were in a 4-0 hole against Greensboro.
That may have seemed like a daunting deficit for some teams, but not for the Panthers.
“When we get behind, we know how good we are, and we know that any team that comes across the diamond with us we can beat them,” said McKinley Erves, the Panthers’ outstanding sophomore outfielder. “We know that if I’m not doing well, someone behind me is going to pick me up. Honestly we’re just a family, and we’ve always got each other’s back. That’s why we never stress.”
Sure enough, the Panthers (30-9) fought their way back, and the game was tied 4-4 after five innings.
The Panthers grabbed their first lead with a pair of runs in the seventh inning, and they didn’t look back.
When relief pitcher Spencer Douches got the final out in the top of the ninth inning, the Panthers had the 7-5 victory, and the celebration was on.
It was the third consecutive USA South tournament championship for the Panthers, and each of those victories have come on their home field.
The Panthers finished with a 4-0 record in the conference tournament, and they had to come from behind to win three of those games.
After rallying from an early deficit to beat Greensboro 9-7 in the first round, LaGrange College secured a dramatic 7-5, extra-inning win over Methodist after trailing by three runs after three innings.
LaGrange College earned a suspense-free 8-0 win over North Carolina Wesleyan on Saturday before finishing things off with Sunday’s victory.
“We finished the regular season the way we did on a high note, and then we came in and just played steady baseball,” said LaGrange College head coach David Kelton, whose team has won seven straight games. “We were fundamentally sound and we did a great job up on the bump. Our bullpen did a phenomenal job, and we got a lot of clutch hitting in the tournament.”
Winning a conference championship is a big deal under any circumstances, but the Panthers got to do it on their home field.
“It’s really special, because we got to do it in front of our home fans, in front of our parents,” Erves said. “This is home. We get to show out. This is a place where we’re comfortable. We always say that we’re not going to let anybody else dogpile on our field.”
Greensboro, which won four consecutive games in the double-elimination tournament after losing its opener to LaGrange College, was looking good after plating four runs in the top of the fourth inning.
Greensboro scored those runs against starting pitcher Gibson Bittner, who gave up five hits in the third inning.
“I think in that third inning I was trying to be too perfect,” Bittner said.
After that difficult inning, Bittner was in lock-down mode.
Bittner threw five consecutive scoreless innings before giving way to Douches with one out in the top of the ninth.
“(Bittner) did an unbelievable job,” Kelton said. “Once he got his secondary pitches going and could get them off the fastball, he took off. He settled in, and we were able to get going.”
Bittner ran into a little trouble in the ninth inning, and he left the game to a nice ovation after giving up an RBI single.
“We’re done that all season, coming back, so four was nothing,” Bittner said of his mindset after the tough third inning. “I had to try to hold them as close as possible.”
After Bittner exited the stage, Douches stepped onto the mound, and he got a pair of groundouts to finish it and the celebration was on.
“We’ve been such a good pitching staff all year,” Douches said. “We may give up some runs early, but our pitching staff is able to keep us in games, and our offense does a great job of fighting back. There’s a magic to that.”
The Panthers began their comeback with a single run in the bottom of the fourth on a Jack Layrisson RBI single.
The Panthers tied it with three runs in the fifth inning.
EJ Churchich had an RBI single, and two more runs scored when Trey Pearce reached on an infield single.
The Panthers surged ahead with two runs in the seventh inning.
Judd Moore, the tournament MVP, gave the Panthers the lead with an RBI single, and Layrisson’s run-scoring double made it a 6-4 game.
The Panthers capped their scoring with a Joe Ruth sacrifice fly in the eighth inning.
“Coach Kelton always reminds us to keep chipping away every inning,” Moore said. “This is our game. It doesn’t matter if you’re behind or not. We’ve had a lot of games this year where we came from behind. We play off our opponent’s mistakes and everybody’s behind each other the entire game.”
Layrisson had three of the Panthers’ 10 hits, and he drove in two runs.
Ruth and Moore both had two hits and an RBI, Churchich had a hit and an RBI, and Cael Chatham and Erves each had a hit.
On Saturday, LaGrange College earned a spot in the championship game with an 8-0 win over North Carolina Wesleyan.
Austin Fain gave the Panthers an outstanding start, going seven shutout innings while allowing five hits and striking out 10. Coston Anderson finished things off with two scoreless innings, and he held N.C. Wesleyan to one hit with four strikeouts.
Moore had three hits and an RBI, Layrisson had two hits and two RBIs, Erves had two hits and an RBI, Ruth had two hits, and Rhett Hollon had a hit and an RBI.
Next up for the Panthers will be the NCAA Division III regional.
It’ll be a four-team regional, with the winner advancing to the super regional.
The super regional winners advance to the College World Series.
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