LaGrange looks to open with a win
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
It’s a new era for the LaGrange Grangers.
Matt Napier, following 15 seasons as Callaway’s ultra-successful offensive coordinator, has taken over the LaGrange High football program, and he’ll lead the team onto the field on Friday for the opening game of the season.
LaGrange’s opponent will be Upson-Lee, and it will be the first time those two programs have faced off since 1999.
For the Grangers, and all of the teams in the state, it has been an unusual summer because of Covid-19, and that there would even be a season has been in doubt.
The high-school season kicked off on Wednesday with games in the Corky Kell Classic, though, and most of the teams in the state will get things started on Friday.
“There were so many months where we didn’t know, but the kids kept showing up, kept working,” Napier said. “To get an opportunity to go play I think is exciting. It’s finally here. All the hard work hopefully will pay off.”
Like every team in the state, how the Grangers prepared this spring and summer has been drastically altered because of the restrictions put in place by the Georgia High School Association.
Spring practice was canceled, and teams weren’t permitted to participate in activities against other teams during the summer.
“At a certain point, you’re tired of blocking and tackling each other,” Napier said. “Our staff and our kids, we’ve been practicing for a long time without getting to compete against anybody else. Normally, you have seven-on-sevens at Auburn and Georgia, or padded camps and scrimmages. It’s not just you and your teammates over and over again. The monotony of that is definitely on us.”
Napier, whose father Bill Napier was a long-time and successful football coach at Murray County High, is grateful that he and the players are going to be on a football field under the lights on a Friday night.
“For my entire life, all I’ve known is Friday-night football,” Napier said. “From playing, to being a part of it as my career, there’s never been a fall like this. It’s a unique deal, and I’m excited to get back playing. These kids have worked so hard, and they deserve it.”
It’s been tough going of late for the Grangers, who haven’t been in the playoffs since 2015 and have only won six games over the past four seasons.
While it has been a struggle of late, LaGrange remains the second-winningest program in the state behind Valdosta, and Napier knows how much the team means to the community, and he’s embracing that.
“There’s a sense of pride, and that’s definitely something you wake up every morning and you tie your shoes and go to work and try to live up to that expectation,” Napier said. “That not only goes for me and my staff, but the kids have to live up to that expectation. We want to help them and make sure that’s something that’s not too heavy on their shoulders. It’s something that you approach as a staff and a team together to try to embrace.”
LaGrange’s opponent will be an Upson-Lee team that went 4-7 last season and lost in the opening round of the playoffs.
Since teams didn’t play preseason games this year, all Napier has to go on is what Upson-Lee did last season.
“We don’t know what we’re heading into,” Napier said. “We know who they’ve got returning, and what they’ve done in the past, but there’s a lot of unknowns when you go in without the film study for this year. I know they’ve got some really talented players like they’ve always had.”
LaGrange, meanwhile, will have a bunch of first-time starters on the field for Friday’s game.
One of those players is sophomore quarterback Jaylan Brown, who has been working closely with Napier and the other coaches throughout the summer.
“Jaylan, he’s a special kid,” Napier said. “He’s a smart kid, he’s an intelligent kid. He’s physical. He’s six-foot, 215 pounds, and he can run. He’s only going to get bigger, faster and stronger, so he’s done really well grasping everything.”
Brown will have some experienced players surrounding him on offense, including senior running back Kale Gibbs, who won the team’s Ironman competition.
Also back is senior wide receiver A.J. Traylor, and there will be a number of other talented but unproven offensive skill players ready to show what they can do.
LaGrange will have a mostly new group of offensive linemen, and Napier has been pleased with the progress they’ve made throughout the summer under veteran coach David Pleasants.
“Coach Pleasants has got eight or nine guys over there that are working hard every day,” Napier said. “The big deal is, it takes a selfless player and an intelligent player to play offensive line. We definitely have that. The big deal is getting that mental toughness, and they will through repetition.”
On defense, Napier will be relying heavily on some of the most experienced players, including defensive linemen Jacquez Smith and Thad Dixon, as well as linebacker Jarno Huzzie.
Dixon won the Iron Hog competition, which was for players who weigh more than 220 pounds.
“Thad’s super-impressive,” Napier said. “He’s a big-time football talent. He’s super-explosive. He can play some offensive line, too. He’s just a hard worker, and an explosive big man. You don’t have that a lot. He’s over 300 pounds, and he’s a kid that can do different things.”
There will also be a number of players stepping into the lineup for the first time, including junior defensive back Montavious Martin.
“We’re excited about his potential,” Napier said. “He’s a high-level college talent, and he’s done a really good job this summer.”
Overall, it’s a relatively inexperienced team, and Napier is hoping the players will continue to improve as the season goes along.
“We’ve got a quality group of about 10 seniors that we’re excited about,” Napier said. “Outside of that we’re young, and we know that. There’s potential to be really successful this year if we can get everybody on the right page and continue to play with great effort and be coachable and do all those things right.”
WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
LAST YEAR: LaGrange went 2-8; Upson-Lee went 4-7
LAST MEETING: Upson-Lee beat LaGrange 35-14 in 1999