Looking back at the year in sports for LaGrange High
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
For the LaGrange High softball team, it was all about getting to Columbus.
Making it to Columbus for the eight-team state finals is a major goal for softball teams in Georgia, and the Lady Grangers made that happen during a memorable 2019 season.
The performance of an exceptional softball team was one of the top highlights during the 2019-2020 school year for LaGrange High.
Unfortunately for LaGrange, what was shaping up to be an outstanding spring sports season was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Whether it was baseball, tennis, or soccer, or track and field LaGrange’s teams and individuals appeared poised to do some special things, but the spring seasons were shut down in the middle of March, and they never resumed.
The teams were at least able to play a portion of the season before everything was shut down.
Here’s a look back at the 2019-2020 year in sports for LaGrange High:
GOAL ACHIEVED: The 2018 season was an excellent one for LaGrange High’s softball team, but there was a sense of unfinished business after the final game was played.
LaGrange finished with a stellar 22-9 record in 2018, but its season came to a close with a loss to Oconee County in the first round of the state tournament.
As the Lady Grangers prepared for a new season and with nearly every key player returning, they didn’t shy away from the high expectations.
LaGrange then went out and met those expectations by finishing second in Region 5-AAAA before beating Denmark and Shaw in the state tournament to get to Columbus for the eight-team state finals.
LaGrange lost both of its games in Columbus, but it was still a fun ride and head coach Gabby Heath believes the commitment of the players was a key to the success.
“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. It’s their mentality, and their drive.”
When the season was done, the honors rolled in for LaGrange, with a handful of players making the all-region and all-state teams.
Among those players was pitcher Camden Smith, who went 18-4 and was one of the top pitchers in Class AAAA.
Malone Aldridge, Jacee Marable, Abby Vanhoose, Madison Dennis, Kirsten Williams and Holly Lynn were also recognized after the season.
All of those players will return for the 2020 season, so LaGrange figures to have a shot at returning to Columbus.
GRANGERS DENIED: Everything was falling into place for LaGrange’s baseball team.
A veteran team with seniors all over the field had won four straight games to improve to 9-3 and was preparing for the start of region play.
LaGrange had just swept a doubleheader from Spalding County when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, and a little more than a month later the season was canceled.
It was a tough blow for the Grangers since they were a senior-dominated team.
As painful as that was for everyone involved, LaGrange head coach Donnie Branch was grateful for the time he had with the seniors, and all of the players.
“Everybody worries about wins and losses, but those kids, they love practice, they love the bus rides, they love the locker room, and just being a part of it,” Branch said. “Nobody really cared about who played, it was the experience of being a part of it, and just enjoying the journey. That’s a big deal.”
Among the seniors were Charles Crawford, Walton Lanier and Mason Green, each of whom will get to play baseball in college, while Will Flowers will play football on the next level.
The other seniors were Sam Yates, Jake Cardwell, Brant Williams, Ethan Hadaway, Blake Hardaway, Cole Cox and Logan Karcher.
Whatever their role, Branch appreciated everything the seniors did for the program.
“This group of seniors, we had good players, but it wasn’t like we had a bunch of first-round draft picks,” Branch said. “At the same time, we had first-round draft-pick character. You just go through those seniors, and these guys are top-flight people.
“I’m proud of some of the ones that didn’t get to play much that are seniors, and how unselfish some of them are. The Hadaway brothers, and Cole Cox, guys like that. Sam Yates, who played probably the best game of his career the last game of the season.”
FINISHING ON HIGH NOTE: It was quite a ride for the seniors on the LaGrange High cheerleading team.
Over the course of their four years in the program, LaGrange finished as high as third in the state, while not even getting to complete another season because of a lack of numbers.
Fortunately for the five seniors on the team, they were able to conclude their high-school careers in style.
LaGrange had a successful 2019 season that ended in the state finals in Columbus.
“It’s great to see how far we’ve come, from our freshman year when it was so great to my sophomore year when we didn’t even have a team,” said one of the seniors, Kynzie Dye. “And now, we’re really good, and a lot of it is that we all get along really well. Everybody likes each other.”
The other seniors on the team were Caroline Childress, Gracie Graham, Caroline Cook, and Nykeria Hanner.
BRINGING HOME THE TROPHY: For the third consecutive year, a LaGrange High cross-country team won a region championship.
In 2017 and 2018, it was LaGrange’s boys’ team taking top honors in the Region 5-AAAA meet, and last year LaGrange’s girls’ team raced to the region championship.
Both LaGrange teams qualified for the state meet and performed well.
LaGrange’s girls’ team finished second in the 2018 region meet, and it edged Cartersville and Chapel Hill to win the title last year.
“The guys have been winning everywhere, and we wanted to get where they were,” said Lauren Farris. “Winning region is definitely a goal every year.”
After the race was completed, LaGrange’s runners knew the title was theirs when it was announced that Cartersville and Chapel Hill tied for second.
“When they called out (Cartersville and Chapel Hill) for second, we all got excited because we all knew it, and we all screamed a little bit,” said Zamya Rhaney, who finished third. “When they called us up there, we were all excited.”
LaGrange coach Chase Wilson was happy to see the girls’ team make it happen.
“They finished third, and then second, and then first, so I was happy for them to finally break through,” Wilson said. “It just seems like the past two years we’ve all been excited about the boys winning, and it seems like it’s all been about them. Now we get a chance for it to be all about the girls.”
Zanay Rhaney, Zamya’s twin sister, placed sixth, and Ivorie Smith, Lauren Farris and Anna Doerr each had top-20 finishes.
LaGrange’s boys’ team was second, with Alex Bowie, Miller Penn, Nathan Fritchley and John McDonald each earning top-10 finishes.
While LaGrange didn’t win region, it was another successful season for a senior-dominated team.
Seniors Alex Martin, Matthew Callaway and Terry Franklin, Bowie, Penn, and McDonald helped the team thrive in recent years while winning back-to-back region titles.
“We’ve become really good friends,” said Penn, who transferred to LaGrange from Upson-Lee before his junior season. “It’s fun to come and hang out for an hour and a half each day.”
At the state meet, Penn and Bowie were LaGrange’s top finishers, placing 32nd and 37th, respectively.
Lauren Farris was LaGrange’s top girls’ finisher in 44th place.
ON THE PODIUM: LaGrange’s Jacob Anderson completed a phenomenal season by finishing fourth in the Class AAAA state meet in February.
Competing in the 160-pound division, Anderson went 3-2 in the state finals in Macon to place fourth.
Anderson was one of LaGrange’s top wrestlers throughout the season, and one of the highlights was a championship-winning performance in the Gary Silva Invitational.
It was Anderson’s first-ever varsity tournament win, and he overwhelmed Northside-Columbus’ Josh Bowers 7-1 in the finals.
“It meant a lot to me,” said Anderson, who finished the season with 56 wins. “I had my entire family here, so I wanted to win.”
Also for LaGrange, senior Matt Callaway finished the season with a 68-4 record while setting the program record for wins in a season.
Unfortunately for Callaway, his hopes of placing at state ended when he suffered an injury in the state finals.
Callaway was the lone senior on the team, and he provided invaluable leadership throughout the season.
“Not just wrestling, but I told (my teammates) at the beginning of the season I’m here for anything,” Callaway said. “I’m here for anything you need to talk about. You need help with school work, I’ll try my best to help you out.”
Callaway only lost one match in the regular season, and he won his first area championship.
“It’s definitely a milestone that I wanted to get,” Callaway said.
Callaway, Anderson and Colin Cavender were LaGrange’s three competitors at the state finals in Macon, while Austin Skiff, Grayson Whaley, Asa Leath and Tayvon Howard qualified for the state sectional.
NO FOUR-PEAT: LaGrange’s girls’ soccer team seemed to be a solid bet to win a fourth consecutive Region 5-AAAA championship, but it was denied that opportunity when the season was canceled in March.
LaGrange had won its first two region matches by a combined score of 19-1 when everything came to a close.
The seniors had a 20-0 region record over the past four years, and they were on teams that won four matches in the state playoffs from 2017 to 2019.
Seniors Caroline Thompson, Abby Mazzolini, Hana Sato and Anna Doerr played alongside each other for four seasons.
“We’ve all been a part of it since the ninth grade,” said Thompson, who will play college soccer at North Georgia. “Anna and Abby and I have played soccer together since we were really, really young.”
Thompson had 16 goals and six assists in seven games, and she had five goals in wins over Benjamin Russell and Troup.
Mazzolini finished her successful senior season with six goals and three assists, and she had three goals against Troup and two in the Sandy Creek game.
SO LONG SENIORS: What was shaping up to be a fantastic season for the LaGrange High boys’ soccer team ended after 10 games.
The Grangers, who faced a challenging schedule, were 7-3 and had some high-profile victories on their resume when the season was canceled.
In its final game, LaGrange beat Sandy Creek 1-0 on March 10 to improve to 2-0 in Region 5-AAAA.
That was the final game for seniors Alex Bowie, Caleb Ceja, Griffin Sanchez, Johnny McDonald, Logan Lopez, Josue Recinos, Tavian Smiley, Amnder Jurado and Jack DeVane.
During the seniors’ four seasons in the program, LaGrange went 47-12-3, won one region championship and finished second twice while winning state-tournament games in 2017 and 2018.
Johnny McDonald, who was the region player of the year in 2019, said he and the other seniors had a close bond.
“Honestly, everyone got along so well, that it translated to the field,” McDonald said. “We’d hang out on and off the field, and I think that really helped us with our chemistry and our bonding.”
RUNNING STRONG: In what was a shortened season, LaGrange’s track-and-field performers stood tall.
LaGrange participated in four competitions before the season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the track athletes most disappointed to see the season end early was junior Kale Gibbs, who was establishing himself as a state-title contender in the hurdle events.
At the season’s final event at Kinnett Stadium in Columbus, Gibbs finished first in the 110-meter hurdles and the 300-meter hurdles, and he was fourth in the pole vault.
Other first-place finishers at the Columbus meet included Marcus Jones (high jump), Zamya Rhaney (1,600-meter run), while Zanay Rhaney (1,600), Christy Thomas (discus), Nevaeh Boddie (shot put) and Miller Penn (1,600) placed second.
Other standouts who finished fifth or higher in the final meet were Ivorie Smith (200-meter), Brittney Heard (high jump), Sophie Nix (pole vault), Katelyn Moore (long jump), Aaron Fritchley (1,600, 3,200), Jaylon Jordan (high jump), Christian Ector (pole vault), and Kinzy Roland (discus).
NET SUCCESS: Another victim of the shortened season was the LaGrange High tennis team, which was having a brilliant spring.
Although the season was an abbreviated one, there were still plenty of highlights for a program that has thrived under the leadership of head coach Kenny Moore.
LaGrange’s girls’ team finished unbeaten with a 9-0 record, and it won the Jekyll Jam tournament early in March.
LaGrange’s boys’ team, meanwhile, went 8-1 overall, and its lone loss came in the championship match of the Jekyll Jam.
“Everybody was working, and it was a fun group, a fun year,” Moore said. “We had some success, and they’re all just heart-broken that we had to stop.”
While most of the players will get an opportunity to return next season, it’s the end of the road for four seniors.
The lone senior on the girls’ side is Jina Shin, who was a member of the number one doubles team along with Ella Eiland.
The seniors on the boys’ team are Young Cho, Albert Kim and Jinsong Jun.
“The girls, we just lose one senior, Jina Shin, and we’ve got the core of the team back,” Moore said. “With the boys, we lose those three who have been with me for five years really since the eighth grade. To see them come along has been fun. I grew really close to that group, so I’m going to miss them like crazy.”
STREAKING ALONG: The LaGrange boys’ basketball team played its season opener on Nov. 15, and it blew out Northside-Columbus 68-54.
It was nearly two months later when LaGrange lost a game, with a setback to Sandy Creek putting an end to a 17-game winning streak to begin the season.
In the final game of that winning streak, LaGrange beat Troup 58-54 in the first varsity boys’ game in Troup’s new gymnasium.
Senior D.J. Burks, LaGrange’s leading scorer last season, had a game-high 21 points against Troup.
While the Grangers were unable to keep up that winning pace, they finished the season with a stellar 19-10 record while reaching the Class AAAA state tournament.
FIGHTING HARD: It was a tough season for the LaGrange football team, which was competitive in nearly every game but only managed two wins.
Head coach Chuck Gibbs was let go after two seasons as LaGrange coach, and his hope was that the players would take something valuable away from how he handled the situation.
“I told them I’ve never been fired, but our seniors have faced an ungodly amount of adversity,” Gibbs said. “I said all I’ve been preaching to you guys for the last two years about how to face adversity, now watch me face adversity, and watch and see if I model what I’ve spoken.”