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Grangers getting stronger

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

As far as Donnie Branch is concerned, building an elite baseball program is about more than what happens between the white lines.

Branch, a Hall of Fame coach who is in his second tenure as the head coach of the LaGrange baseball team, believes what’s done in the weight room holds tremendous value as well.

That’s why, since he replaced David Smart as LaGrange’s coach last summer, Branch has placed such a heavy emphasis on the program’s strength program.

“There has to be a balance between playing, honing your baseball skill, and developing your body,” Branch said on Thursday morning at the close of a 90-minute lifting session. “You can be a great fielder, but if you can’t run, or if you’re a great hitter but have no explosion or strength, you’re going to have a hard time in high school. What we do this summer is we try to enhance our tools, our explosion.

Tyler Eady, LaGrange’s strength-and-conditioning coordinator, has developed a lifting program that the baseball players have been following this summer.

Eady will continue to lead the players in weight-lifting class when the 2019-2020 school year begins in August.

“I kind of had an idea of what I wanted to do, and then (Eady) sent me what he was going to do, what he liked,” Branch said. “I really liked what he was doing. It was encompassing the things I thought we needed to get done. And more importantly, it gets them in the mode for weight-training class, because they’re getting familiar with what he wants.”

Branch added that “our weight room is to build explosive, strong athletes. It’s not to set bench-press records. We’re trying to get kids stronger and more athletic, and that’s what Tyler’s workouts are geared toward.”

During the summer, the players lift weights twice a week at the school, and they also spend two days a week working on speed and agility with Kane Bradfield at Clockwork Training.

“This summer, it’s been unbelievable how hard our kids have worked,” Branch said. “Attendance has been unbelievable. Sometimes kids have a game, but they make this a priority.”

Branch has made it a point to not only include current Grangers, but players who will soon wear the LaGrange uniform.

A handful of players heading into the ninth grade participate in the summer conditioning program as well, and Branch believes that can only help the program.

“They have not set foot in LaGrange High yet, and they know how to do every lift. They know all the workouts. They’re ready to make a jump,” Branch said. “The full results of our summer weight program won’t come for years. The upcoming seniors, we’re trying to help them quick, but the guys that are the young guys, they’re going to have four or five years of this, and in weight-training class. They’re going to look like a whole different guy. And that’s how you build a championship program.”

Incoming freshman Trevor Booton has been an active participant in the summer program, and he said the players all support each other.

“You get to know each other’s strengths, and everybody’s striving to get better, and you’re pushing each other every day to get better, trying to get one more pound on the bench,” Booton said. “It really helps.”

Rising sophomore Zach Thompson, who could be the starting catcher next season, has fully bought in to the importance of the strength program.

“The weight room to me is by far the most important part of the offseason,” Thompson said. “It is one of the most important parts of our baseball program, definitely.”

Echoing Booton’s thoughts, Thompson is impressed by the way the players encourage each other.

“You push each other, you learn to work hard, and go get it,” Thompson said. “Every time we come in here, we want to go up in weight, we want to go stronger. When you push each other, that just motivates you.”

Branch’s first tenure as LaGrange’s coach was from 1989 to 2012, and his teams won more 500 games while capturing a state championship in 2004.

Branch returned to the dugout last season, and he led the Grangers to a third-place finish in Region 5-AAAA and a spot in the second round of the state playoffs.

Branch believes strength and speed training benefits players in every aspect of the game.

“When you do square it up, that ball that you hit that goes to the outfielder may go over. That ball you hit to the warning track may get out,” Branch said. “And one thing we needed work on was, defensively we did not cover the field well. Balls would fall on us that don’t fall on championship teams. So, we do speed and explosion. When you do that, it makes them a better college prospect, too. It makes them a better prospect, but it makes them a better player for us.”

Branch’s hope is that a productive offseason will have the players ready to roll when preseason practice begins in late January.

“When you get to the season, you have to be in shape,” Branch said. “We’re not trying to get you in shape. We’re going to get you in great shape so you can go wide-open that first day.”