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Season ends early for Grangers

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

In a coronavirus-free world, the LaGrange High boys’ soccer team would possibly have been at home for a second-round state-playoff game this week.

Instead, a season that held such promise has been over for more than six weeks.

When LaGrange beat Sandy Creek on March 10, it was 7-3 overall, and 2-0 in Region 5-AAAA.

That, it turns out, was the Grangers’ final game of the season.

The season was suspended a few days after the Sandy Creek game, and it was officially canceled  earlier this month.

Shane Pulliam, LaGrange’s head coach since 2018, felt the team had the potential to make a deep run in the state tournament.

“After beating two state runners-up when we were healthy, once we got back healthy, we could have probably been into that (state) semifinal area,” Pulliam said. “And we were starting to turn the corner on that part.”

Among the players Pulliam was hoping to get back was senior Johnny McDonald, the Region 5-AAAA player of the year in 2019 who missed the final six games of the 2020 season with a hamstring injury.

McDonald is part of a senior class that accomplished a great deal during its time at LaGrange.

Since the start of the 2017 season, the Grangers have won one region championship and finished twice on two other occasions, and they won state-tournament games in 2018 and 2019.

Most of the current seniors have either been starting or playing significant minutes since Pulliam became the head coach in 2018.

The seniors on this year’s team are McDonald, Kaleb Ceja, Alex Bowie, Josue Recinos, Jack DeVane, Logan Lopez, Griffin Sanchez, Tavian Smiley and Amner Jurado.

“That was a big group of players that were starters, or varsity pullups,” Pulliam said, reflecting on the 2018 team. “Jack was the starting keeper that year. Johnny was a starter, and Josue was a leading scorer for (the junior-varsity team), and Logan (Lopez) wasn’t a starter, but he was somebody that would get in and get some time here and there. Most of them were varsity guys.”

McDonald had five goals in 2018, current senior Alex Bowie played in every game this season, and Kaleb Ceja and Griffin Sanchez also got a lot of playing time.

Those players continued to excel during a memorable 2019 season where the Grangers went 14-4-2, won a region title and reached the second round of the state tournament before losing to powerhouse Marist.

Leading the way was McDonald, who scored 15 goals and was the Region 5-AAAA player of the year in 2019.

That same group was excelling once again this spring, with Lopez and Bowie scoring five and three goals, respectively, and McDonald had two goals in limited playing time.

DeVane was solid in goal while splitting time with junior Cason Blackburn.

While the seniors will be missed, the Grangers should be set up to succeed again next season with some gifted players returning.

Among the returning players is sophomore Tripp Hollstrom, who had a team-leading six goals this season.

Bryce Kuhn and Pearson Knight each scored two goals this season, and Tony Sosa, Caleb Kostial and Owen Quimbayo had goals.

LaGrange should also have a large senior class, with nine current juniors preparing to make the transition.

“I’ve got a pretty good group coming up, they just don’t have all of the super experience at the varsity level, because they’ve been behind a lot of good players before them,” Pulliam said. “They’ve always played club together, and they’ve been the most successful team of the club era down here because they were the first one to win their age group. They won almost every tournament they’ve entered, and they’re split between juniors and seniors.”

LaGrange will make the transition to a new region next season.

After playing in Region 5-AAAA for the past four seasons, LaGrange will be in Region 2-AAAA next year.

It’s a region that will include LaGrange, Troup, Hardaway, Spencer, Kendrick, Shaw, Carver and Columbus High.

“We’re in the process of doing our schedule now, and hopefully we’ll get that filled in,” Pulliam said.