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LaGrange baseball players putting in the work

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

They won’t play their first game until February, but the preparation for the 2021 baseball season is well underway for the LaGrange Grangers.

Under the watchful eyes of head coach Donnie Branch, LaGrange’s players have been busy this summer participating in the offseason training program.

It’s a program that includes strenuous workouts in the gym, lifting sessions in the weight room, and time on the field working on the fundamentals of the game.

Branch, a Hall of Fame coach who has more than 500 wins to his credit with a state title, wants to leave nothing to chance when it comes to preparation.

“I’m a big believer in, I like to out-prepare,” Branch said. “I don’t worry about what others do. I like it when we’re working, and I know they’re not. I think that confidence you gain that I’m 100 percent sure that nobody has done more than we’ve done.”

Branch felt the Grangers were prepared to enjoy a successful 2020 season, and things were indeed going well when everything was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

LaGrange had just swept a doubleheader from Spalding County to improve to 9-3 and it was preparing for the start of region competition when the season was suspended, and it was later canceled.

On a senior-dominated team, it was a heart-breaking conclusion to what was shaping up to be a banner season.

“I wanted to see them get to play it out, those seniors,” Branch said. “We lost some high- character people. And some of them happened to be good at baseball. Those were some great kids. Those folks are going to be really successful human beings.”

The season was suspended in the middle of March, and it was nearly three months before the players and coaches were able to meet face-to-face again.

Just because the players couldn’t work out at the school didn’t mean they were standing idly by, though.

“The first thing that’s been really good is, when Covid hit during our high-school season, within two weeks we were doing Zoom workouts,” Branch said.

The Georgia High School Association permitted teams to begin summer workouts on June 8, and on that day the players were in the gym, ready to roll.

“We haven’t stopped,” Branch said. “We did Zoom for like six weeks, and then when Georgia High School Association allowed us to start doing stuff, we did. This is our fourth week. We do speed, plyometrics, weights, all that stuff. We go on the field two days a week, and we do fundamentals. I had a huge summer plan that got squashed. Because of the rules we’re restricted, but we’re still getting work done, but we’ve done really, really well for what we have.”

The program Branch has put together is designed to benefit the team, while also making the players more appealing to college programs.

“All of this stuff, it makes them a better baseball player, and it makes them a better recruit,” Branch said. “If a kid has a dream of doing it, these are the measurables that college coaches want to see. They put a clock on you, they put radar guns on you. It makes them better for us, and it makes them a better recruit.”

The players participating in the summer program includes seniors, as well as incoming eighth graders who will be a part of the junior-varsity team next season.

Among the seniors are Matthew Morgan and Landon Tucker, two of the four returning players who started last season.

The other returning starters are Zack Thompson and Will Alford, who has been starting since he was a freshman.

Morgan, who will likely be LaGrange’s number one starting pitcher next season, knows it’s important for him to be a positive role model for his younger teammates.

“We only have a few seniors,” Morgan said. “We try to work as hard as we can, set an example, even if it’s not talking, it’s just showing them how to work.”

More than half of the starters next season will be players who either didn’t play or rarely saw the field next season, and Tucker knows how critical it will be for those players to apply themselves 100 percent during the offseason.

“It’s going to take a lot to build up these young guys that have never played on varsity for us to be good next year,” Tucker said. “We’ve got to do everything we can. We’ve got four returning (starters).”

While some of the players are unproven on the varsity level, Morgan is confident they can get the job done.

“We have a bunch of talented young guys that work hard, and listen to the coaches,” Morgan said. “They’re going to be really good.”

Branch’s goal is to apply the same amount of energy to every member of the team, regardless of what their role will be.

“We’ve got some good players, and we try to take good and make it great, and great and make it even better, and average make it good,” Branch said. “Our worst player, we’ve got to get him better, as well as our best player.”

The Grangers have about six months to go before the 2021 season commences, and assuming the players put in the work, Branch believes the future is bright.

“We have the potential to come right back and be pretty good, but a lot of it’s going to depend on how much do they do between now and then,” Branch said.