LaGrange in exclusive company
Published 11:27 pm Wednesday, October 23, 2019
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
Sometimes, the plan comes together.
When the LaGrange High players and coaches convened for the start of a new softball season, hopes and expectations were high.
Following a successful 2018 season that ended with a hard-fought loss in the opening round of the state playoffs, most of the key players from that team were set to return.
Still, just because the Lady Grangers had the potential to have a big season didn’t mean it was going to happen.
In LaGrange’s case, though, the lofty expectations have been realized.
With last week’s playoff win over Shaw, LaGrange has advanced to the eight-team state finals in Columbus.
Only the best of the best advance to Columbus, and LaGrange is a part of that exclusive group for the first time since 2004.
LaGrange’s first-round game in the double-elimination tournament will be on Thursday against Heritage-Catoosa, with first pitch set for 6 p.m. at the South Commons Softball Complex.
If LaGrange wins that game, it will play again at 10 a.m. on Friday against either Madison County or Northside-Columbus.
If LaGrange loses to Heritage, it will play at 2 p.m. on Friday against the loser of the Madison County and Northside game.
LaGrange could potentially play a second game on Friday if it is still alive, and the tournament concludes on Saturday when a state champion will be crowned.
Gabby Heath, LaGrange’s head coach, is encouraging her players to enjoy the moment and make the most of it.
“Go, play as hard as you can and leave it all on the field, and just play,” Heath said. “I think they’re going to be fine. I think it’s going to be really exciting for them to see softball at that level.”
LaGrange will fit right in with the elite competition.
LaGrange (24-11) finished second in Region 5-AAAA to a strong Central-Carroll team before beating Denmark and Shaw in the state playoffs.
In the first round, LaGrange was pushed to a third-and-deciding game before beating Denmark 9-2.
There was no suspense in the second round, with LaGrange overwhelming Shaw 9-1 and 9-0.
Now, LaGrange will try to take down Heritage-Catoosa (25-6), which beat St. Pius X and Eastside in the first two rounds of the state playoffs to make it to Columbus.
While Heritage won both St. Pius X games in blowout fashion, the Eastside series was competitive.
Heritage won the first game 1-0 in nine innings, and it finished the sweep with a 2-0 victory.
Heritage is led by pitcher Rachel Gibson, who has had a dominant junior season.
Including the four playoff games, Gibson is 19-4 with a 1.04 earned run average, and she has 254 strikeouts in 134.2 innings.
In the Eastside series, Gibson pitched 16 scoreless with 23 strikeouts, and she gave up just two hits, one in each game.
“She’s got a really good rise ball,” Heath said. “We’ve been working on that for the past four days, not swinging at high pitches.”
Fortunately for LaGrange, it has an ace of its own who is capable of matching Gibson pitch for pitch.
Junior Camden Smith, who has been LaGrange’s number one pitcher since she was a freshman, has had a terrific season.
Smith is 18-4 with a 2.11 ERA, and she has 199 strikeouts in 166 innings.
In the second round against Shaw, Smith gave up a combined four hits in the two games, and the one run she gave up was unearned.
Smith was just as good in the opening round against Denmark.
In 17 innings, Smith limited Denmark to five hits in 19 innings, and both of the runs she allowed came on a home run in the second inning.
After that home run, Smith settled in and shut Denmark out over the final five innings.
Heath felt Smith did a fantastic job of keeping her cool in the third game against Denmark when the season was on the line.
“In the third Denmark game, the calls that we had been getting, we weren’t getting, but you couldn’t tell with her,” Heath said. “She kept her composure.”
While the pitching has been there all season with Smith overpowering opposing offenses, LaGrange has hadn’t any issues scoring runs either.
The Lady Grangers are averaging more than six runs per game, and they’ve actually been better than that in the playoffs.
First baseman Jacee Marable leads LaGrange with a .398 batting average, and she has 12 doubles and 23 RBIs.
Center fielder Malone Aldridge is hitting .377 with 11 doubles, one home run and 28 RBIs, and she’s tops on the team with 36 stolen bases.
Shortstop Abby Vanhoose is hitting .368, and she has eight doubles, two home runs a team-best 30 RBIs and 35 runs scored, and she’s second on the team with 34 stolen bases.
Holly Lynn, who has done an exceptional job as LaGrange’s catcher, is hitting .363 with four home runs and 26 RBIs.
Camden Smith has done her part at the plate as well, hitting .344 with three home runs and 20 RBIs.
Second baseman Madison Dennis is hitting .314 with two home runs and 24 RBIs, and she has 25 stolen bases.
Kirsten Williams, who has solidified the third-base position in her first season as a starter, is hitting .300 with 14 RBIs, and she has stolen 16 bases.
Outfielder Kaylee Bryant only has seven hits, but she leads the team with 15 walks, giving her a .348 on-base percentage.
Macee Stone, LaGrange’s number two pitcher, is hitting .256 with seven doubles and seven RBIs, and she’s second on the team with 12 walks.
Outfielder Mary James Stogner has been used primarily as a courtesy runner for the pitcher or the catcher, and she has scored 15 runs while stealing 13 bases.
Kate Asbell has also been used frequently as a courtesy runner, and she has scored 12 runs.
All of the players have put in plenty of work to get to this point.
While official preseason practice began in late July, the players and coaches got together for workouts throughout the summer.
“It was four hours a day, three days a week,” Heath said.
Many of the team members also play softball throughout the year on travel teams, and Heath believes that helps sharpen their competitive edge as well.
“We have a core group that plays year-round, that play against good competition,” Heath said. “When they’re competing like that, it makes it a lot easier for us. They have the mentality, and the drive.”
CLASS AAAA STATE FINALS
WHEN: Thursday through Saturday
WHERE: South Commons Complex in Columbus
WHO: LaGrange, Heritage-Catoosa, Madison County, Northside-Columbus, Lafayette, Central-Carroll, Oconee County and Marist
FORMAT: Double-elimination tournament