LaGrange ready for state tournament
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
The journey to Columbus is about to get underway for the LaGrange Lady Grangers.
LaGrange High’s softball team, after winning the Region 2-AAAA championship, had a bye in the first round of the state playoffs.
LaGrange will get its playoff voyage started on Thursday when it hosts Cairo in a best-of-three series, with the winner advancing to the third round to play either Flowery Branch or Cedartown.
The winner of the third-round series will make it to Columbus for the state semifinals, and a champion will be crowned on Oct. 31.
Cairo earned its spot in the second round by beating Rutland in a hard-fought series that went the full three games.
After the teams split the first two games, Cairo won the winner-take-all third game 2-1.
In attendance at the game was LaGrange head coach Gabby Heath, and she was impressed with what she saw.
“They’re going to play the game the right way,” Heath said. “They’re going to be quick. They’ll be out here to win. They have that fire, that energy.”
If the Lady Grangers play like they have throughout the season, though, Heath believes they’ll be successful.
“That’s the whole talk that we’ve had. If you come out here and do the right things, and play how you know how to play and attack first, and not play scared, you’ll be fine,” Heath said. “They’ll all been in these situations before. They have that experience.”
The Lady Grangers do have plenty of experience, with six seniors leading the way.
Pitcher Camden Smith, first baseman Jacee Marable, second baseman Madison Dennis, shortstop Abby Vanhoose, third baseman Kirsten Williams, and center fielder Malone Aldridge have been contributing on the varsity team since they were freshmen.
The other starters, catcher Holly Lynn, and outfielders Kaylee Bryant and Mariana Ceja, also bring plenty of experience to the field.
A year ago, those players helped LaGrange beat Denmark and Shaw in the state playoffs to make it to Columbus for the eight-team state finals.
This season, LaGrange (19-9) won its first region championship in a decade, and expectations are sky-high heading into the playoffs.
One of the seniors, Kirsten Williams, believes the experience has allowed the players to deal with adversity better, so if something goes wrong in a game, no one will panic.
“One of the things we’re better at is handling failure during a game, and not dwelling on it or anything,” Williams said.
It also helps that LaGrange has one of the best pitchers in the state.
Camden Smith has been starting since she was a freshman, and she has been on the mound for every big game for the past four seasons.
Smith has had a monster senior season, in part because she’s 100 percent healthy after having offseason knee surgery.
“She’s on a different level this year in my opinion,” Heath said. “Her knee is healthy, she feels confident. She’s changing pitches, she’s moving the ball around. The confidence is there that hasn’t always been there.”
Smith is backed up by a defense that has been superb, and LaGrange has been putting up big numbers, with everyone in the lineup contributing.
All of LaGrange’s attributes were on display in the region tournament when it went 3-0, and it beat Troup 8-0 in the region-championship game.
Smith was dazzling in that final game, throwing a complete-game one-hitter with eight strikeouts, and all nine starters had at least one hit.
Aldridge had three hits, Williams, Dennis, Marable and Smith had two hits apiece, and Lynn Vanhoose, Ceja and Bryant each had one hit.
LaGrange tuned up for state with three challenging games, and it closed the regular season with a 7-0 win over Whitewater.
“This group has put so much work into it,” Heath said. “We’re proud of the whole group.”
That LaGrange, or any team, would even get to this point was far from a sure thing during an uncertain summer, with the cloud of Covid-19 hovering over everything.
“You kind of hold your breath throughout the season,” Heath said. “There are so many uncontrollables. We weren’t sure we’d get to this point.”
The Lady Grangers have made it through without any issues, though, and now they’re ready to get rolling at state.
“We’ve been very grateful, with all the Covid going on and everything,” Williams said. “I’m so happy we didn’t have to be quarantined or anything, and we’ve been able to have as normal a season as we could with everything going on.”
LAGRANGE VS. CAIRO
WHAT: Second round of Class AAAA state playoffs
WHEN: Thursday, 4 p.m. (doubleheader); Friday (if necessary)