Panthers first in preseason poll
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
The LaGrange College Panthers have been the top dog in the USA South of late.
A year ago, LaGrange College won its third consecutive USA South baseball tournament championship to earn an invitation to the NCAA Division III regional.
Not surprisingly considering most of the players who helped the Panthers go 32-12 last season are back, the team is the number one team in the USA South preseason poll.
LaGrange College received seven of the 13 first-place votes, while Methodist had four first-place votes.
LaGrange College’s program is under the direction of Troup High graduate David Kelton, who has led the team to tremendous heights in recent years.
Since the start of the 2017 season, the Panthers are 132-49, and it’s the best four-year run in the history of the program.
As far as being the preseason pick to win the conference, Kelton said “it shows from the previous year how everybody views your program. We have a lot of guys coming back that pitched a lot of meaningful innings and also (had) a lot of quality at-bats that helped us win a lot of games. We have a lot of experience on the field and we just have to put it together.”
After winning the conference title last season, LaGrange College was matched up with Birmingham Southern in the NCAA regional.
Birmingham Southern won the series that went the full five games, and it went on to finish as the national runner-up.
LaGrange College had a 2-1 lead in the series before Birmingham Southern won the final two games.
Returning for the Panthers are some of their leading hitters, including outfielder McKinley Erves, who hit .385 with 41 runs scored last season.
Also back is Joe Ruth, who had a breakout freshman season with a .360 batting average while driving in 44 runs.
Another returnee is Jack Layrisson who hit .329 with 31 RBIs with a team-best five home runs, and Cael Chatham hit .310 with 25 RBIs.
Among the returning pitchers is Gibson Bittner, who made the transition to the starting staff last season and went 8-3.
Also back is relief ace Spencer Douches, who was 3-0 with four saves and a 1.51 earned run average in 2019.
LaGrange College opens its season at home against Roanoke on Feb. 8.
On Feb. 15, LaGrange College hosts Birmingham Southern in a rematch of last year’s NCAA regional.
LaGrange College’s conference opener is Feb. 22 against North Carolina Wesleyan.