Special season for Panthers
Published 1:25 am Friday, May 24, 2019
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
They were so close.
The LaGrange College Panthers pushed Birmingham Southern to a fifth and deciding game in their NCAA Division III regional, only to come up short.
It was the Panthers’ third consecutive trip to an NCAA regional, and they’ve won two games each time, but they’re still looking to bust through the door and make it to a super regional.
LaGrange College and Birmingham Southern split the first four games of the series, setting up Sunday’s winner-take-all game.
After falling behind 8-1, LaGrange College got within two in the eighth inning and had the tying run at the plate, but Birmingham Southern busted it open in the ninth inning on the way to a 14-6 victory.
David Kelton, who has led the Panthers to three consecutive USA South tournament titles and four straight 30-win seasons, appreciated the effort the players gave throughout the spring.
“It was a very close-knit group that just day in and day out, they competed extremely hard,” Kelton said. “That’s been the one thing that I’ve been very lucky with, that we’ve been able to get groups year in and year out that have competed hard, and this group was no different.”
The Panthers finished with a 32-12 record, and they were one win away from reaching a two-team super regional.
The super-regional winners advance to the eight-team College World Series.
Birmingham Southern will host Coe College in a super regional today and Saturday.
“It was five, hard-fought games,” Kelton said. “You just have to give credit to Birmingham Southern. They played extremely hard, and their bats got hot at the right time. They pitched it real well. They were able to get some clutch hits when they needed it, which sealed that victory for them.”
After losing the first game 15-6, LaGrange College won the next two games 11-7 and 6-4 to take the series lead.
Birmingham Southern evened the series with an 8-5 win on Saturday before finishing things off with Sunday’s 14-6 win.
Trailing 8-1, the Panthers scored a single run in the seventh inning and four more in eighth to get within two, but the comeback fell short.
“We got off to such a slow start in that final game,” Kelton said. “You get an eight-run deficit, and we couldn’t quite find a rhythm. We kept pecking, and all the sudden we had that inning, and we’re in striking distance. Just for our guys to put ourselves in that position was just phenomenal. They were a very tough ball team, and I was proud of the way our guys competed, and we put ourselves in a position to win it.”
The Panthers earned their spot in the NCAA regional by winning the USA South tournament with a 4-0 record.
In three of those games the Panthers had to come from behind, including the championship game where they trailed 4-0 after three innings.
“It kind of goes back to, even in the conference tournament, just being able to have some come-from-behind wins, not being fazed by some difficult innings that we’ve had that went against us, and just being able to overcome some adversity,” Kelton said. “They handled it extremely well. It was the same thing in this regional. They played hard. There were times when we got down, and they just didn’t flinch, which was great. They just kept plucking away, kept fighting, kept competing. It was just fun to watch.”
It was the final game for seven seniors, including shortstop Rhett Hollon, who hit .401 this season and was a two-year starter.
Hollon is the only every-day player who is a senior, although Braden Shealy was a key man off the bench, and he had some clutch hits in the regional.
Senior starting pitcher Austin Fain was 6-1 with a 2.43 earned run average, and senior Austin Brown was a valuable member of the bullpen.
The other seniors are Tripp Bridges, Trey Robinson and Ryan Ross.
While those players will be missed, the Panthers will be loaded next season.
Most of the key players are returning, and Kelton is bringing in a gifted group of freshmen, including Callaway’s Braelin Mitchell and Trent Sheppard.
“We’ve got just about everybody coming back, and we’ve got a recruiting class that through Perfect Game is the number one recruiting class in the country,” Kelton said. “So we’re excited with the talent pool we’re going to have in house with all of the guys returning, with so much postseason experience coming back.”
Kelton added that “yet it’s discouraging, losing the way we did, because you’re so close. Then again, it motivates me on the recruiting end to just continue to grind, continue to go out and find guys to help us keep plugging along, and get through that regional, because we all saw how close we are to finally being able to bust through a regional and get to a super regional.”