Standout season cut short for Panthers
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
After a shaky start to the season, the LaGrange College baseball team was flying high.
The Panthers dropped four of their first five games, but they won 11 of their next 12 games, and they were 5-1 in the USA South.
LaGrange College was preparing for a key home series against rival Piedmont when the bad news starting to come in.
First LaGrange College found out that Piedmont’s baseball team, already in transit, had to turn around and return home after school officials decided to shut everything down because of the coronavirus threat.
Later during that practice session head coach David Kelton got a call from the Covenant College coach letting him know that the season was over for his team.
“Within a 30-minute to an hour time span, our next two conference weekends got canceled,” Kelton said. “At that juncture, the guys realized we’re probably not going to play. There was extreme disappointment.”
One day later it became official, with the USA South announcing that the remainder of the spring sports seasons were canceled.
The decision means the Panthers (12-5) won’t be able to try to win a fourth consecutive conference championship, and it also denies them a chance to compete for a NCAA Division III national title.
“We started out 1-4, and we were playing very poor baseball in all phases of the game,” Kelton said. “And then we were able to turn it around and win 11 of our next 12, and we still felt like we had another gear that we haven’t as a team gotten to yet, but we were slowly building toward. We were starting to play fundamentally sound baseball in all phases, and you could see the confidence, and everything was starting to come around. So I just felt like this team had another gear we hadn’t hit yet, that we were getting close to, and I felt could potentially turn into a special year. Now you never know.”
The LaGrange College program has been thriving under Kelton’s leadership.
The Panthers are 132-54 since the start of the 2016 season, and they’ve won three straight USA South tournament titles.
The Panthers have yet to make it past the regional round of the NCAA tournament, and they’d hope to achieve that goal this season.
“We’ve been so close at the regionals, and this group wanted to be the group that took us to the next level,” Kelton said. “So you get some of those guys that are potentially going to come back and hopefully we can accomplish it next year, but then you have other guys that won’t be able to come back, and it’s just unfortunate that this how it ended for them.”
A year ago in the NCAA regional, LaGrange College and Birmingham Southern played a thrilling best-of-five series.
After the teams split the first four games, Birmingham Southern won the series with a 14-6 in game five.
Birmingham Southern went on to reach the national-championship game, and that let the LaGrange College players know how close they are to reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
“We’ve been talking about that with the team. Like Birmingham Southern did last year, it’s a matter of getting hot at the right time,” Kelton said. “We went toe-to-toe with them, and played a great five-game series. They got hot and took off through the NCAA tournament, and you look up and a team that we were so close to beating in the regional, they’re playing for the national championship. That helped our guys understand that we’re close, we just have to put it together at the right time.”
This team, after the early-season struggles, appeared fully capable of making a tournament run, and Kelton credits that in part to the “strong chemistry that these guys have.”
“The culture in the locker room is at an all-time high,” Kelton added. “You’ve got a good group of guys that do things right, and play the game the right way, and play extremely hard for each other.”
With the season over, Kelton said “now it’s about moving on to next year. What can we accomplish right now that’s going to better prepare us for next year? Just their drill work, and long-toss programs. You kind of go into offseason mode. You try to take this time to really focus on that, and make sure when we come back in the fall that you’ve improved in a lot of areas, and that you can take a step forward.”
There is some good news.
Because of an NCAA decision, student-athletes in spring sports will be granted a year of eligibility relief. That means the seniors who otherwise would have been done after this season will be able to return in 2021 if they choose to.
“Some (of the seniors) are saying they’re going to move on because of grad school opportunities, or one wants to become a dentist, and he’s been offered the opportunity to come back home,” Kelton said. “But I’ve got a handful of guys right now that are trying to work things out. I have a handful of guys that are saying they’re wanting to come back. Time will tell.”
Some of those seniors who have been with the program since 2017 had an opportunity to leave the school with four conference championships.
“You have guys like Richie Post, and Austin McDade, and Dawson Weaver. They had the possibility if we could figure it out of winning a conference championship all four years while they were in college,” Kelton said. “It doesn’t happen often. Obviously with this season being cut short they weren’t able to accomplish that.”
Many of LaGrange College’s players are scheduled to play in various leagues this summer, but that’s up in the air.
“You have some that are anxiously waiting to see if the summer-ball leagues are going to be played. So they’re trying to get ready for that,” Kelton said. “More than anything, the season got taken away so early that guys are wanting to practice, wanting to just do extra work back home, just because they didn’t get to play a full season.”