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Journey continues for LaGrange softball team

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

Expectations were sky-high as the LaGrange High softball team jumped into a new season.

Every starter returned from a 2019 team that made it to Columbus for the state finals, so there was a feeling that the 2020 season could be a special one.

Just because everything fell into place one season doesn’t mean that same success will be duplicated the following year, though.

Fortunately for the Lady Grangers, there has been no drop-off, in fact this season has been an even more successful one.

LaGrange, after winning the Region 2-AAAA championship and having a first-round bye in the state tournament, swept Cairo on Thursday to advance to the state quarterfinals for the second consecutive year.

LaGrange will face Cedartown in the third round on Tuesday, and the winner will make it to Columbus for the semifinals on Friday and Saturday.

“Even if it’s the same kids, it’s never the same team, so you never know if you’re going to make it back,” said LaGrange head coach Gabby Heath. “It shows a great commitment to experiencing it again.”

LaGrange secured its place in the quarterfinals with a sweep of Cairo.

The first game was a mismatch, with LaGrange taking control early and cruising to a 9-1 victory.

The second game was tight, with the Lady Grangers breaking open a tie game with three runs in the seventh and final inning, and they won 6-3.

“I thought the second game was a lot more fun,” said Camden Smith, the winning pitcher in both games. “It was more of a competition. I felt like the first game, we had them beat. We had to work for that second win.”

After LaGrange took the lead in the top of the seventh, Smith shut Cairo down in the bottom of the inning to preserve the win.

The win means a close-knit group of players will have at least two more games to play together, and they’re obviously hoping for more.

“I just want to go as far as I can,” said Smith, who after graduation will head to the University of West Georgia to join the softball team. “I’m grateful that I have a place to go after this, but this is special, and I want to have more games with (my teammates).”

Smith and fellow seniors Abby Vanhoose, Malone Aldridge, Kirsten Williams, Madison Dennis and Jacee Marable have been teammates since they were junior-varsity players in the eighth grade.

They’ve accomplished a lot together, and now they have a chance to keep it going and make a run at a state championship.

“We went to the elite eight last year, and we’re really happy we got there this year, but we plan to go further,” Dennis said.

Vanhoose, like so many of her fellow seniors has been starting since she was a freshman, said “it’s been a blast” to be a part of the LaGrange softball family.

“Sometimes we get these moments and you realize it’s the last time I’ll be with y’all,” Vanhoose said. “The way I think of it, if we keep winning, that’s more and more time I’ll have with each other.”

Here’s a look at both of Thursday’s playoff wins over Cairo:

GAME ONE

LAGRANGE 9, CAIRO 1

Mariana Ceja, LaGrange’s junior outfielder, came into the series with Cairo having never hit a home-run as a high-school player.

That changed in the third inning, with Ceja hammering the ball over the left-field fence for a two-run home run, and she smiled all the way around the bases.

“I was surprised and shocked,” Ceja said. “I saw it go over the fence, and I thought, that’s my first high-school home run.”

That was one of two home runs LaGrange hit during the blowout win, with Abby Vanhoose delivering a solo home run in the sixth inning.

LaGrange had plenty of offensive success in game one with 14 hits, and four players had multi-hit games.

Vanhoose did a lot of the damage with three hits, including a home run and a double, and she had three RBIs.

Holly Lynn, a catcher who has been behind the plate for every inning of every game this season, had three hits and two RBIs, and Camden Smith had three hits.

Ceja, in addition to her two-run home run, had a sacrifice fly to finish with three RBIs, Kirsten Williams had two hits, Malone Aldridge walked twice, and Kaylee Bryant had a hit.

The beneficiary of the offensive support was Smith, who threw a complete-game four-hitter with three strikeouts.

Cairo struck first with a run in the top of the first, and LaGrange answered with a run in the bottom of the inning.

Aldridge, the leadoff hitter, led off with a walk, and after stealing second and third, she came home on a double steal to tie it at 1-1.

LaGrange took the lead with four runs in the bottom of the third.

Vanhoose and Lynn had back-to-back RBI doubles, and Ceja’s two-run home run pushed the lead to 5-1.

LaGrange added two more runs in the fifth inning on a Lynn single and a Ceja sacrifice fly, and Vanhoose’s solo home run was the highlight of a two-run sixth inning.

GAME TWO

LAGRANGE 6, CAIRO 3

On a day when the Lady Grangers hit five home runs, they took the lead in the seventh inning of game two with some small ball.

With the go-ahead run on third base with one out, senior Madison Dennis stepped to the plate with a chance to give her team the lead.

Dennis was asked to bunt, and she executed it perfectly, putting the ball in play down the first-base line, and Malone Aldridge came home with the go-ahead run.

LaGrange added two more insurance runs to take a three-run lead, and Camden Smith retired Cairo in order in the bottom of the seventh to preserve the 6-3 win.

Dennis, who hit a home run in the first inning, knew what she had to do when she came to the plate in the seventh inning.

“The plan was to drag bunt toward first,” Dennis said. “That was on my mind. My job was simple, just get it down, and if I was out, it didn’t matter. Just get it down, and that scores a run.”

The three-run outburst in the seventh inning allowed the Lady Grangers to take control of a tight ballgame after they won the first game in blowout fashion.

Abby Vanhoose, a senior shortstop, enjoyed the second game more since it was so competitive.

“Those close games, it keeps you on your toes,” Vanhoose said. “Your adrenaline is constantly up.”

While LaGrange took the lead on a bunt, home runs were the big start of the game, with Dennis, Smith and Jacee Marable each hitting solo shots.

Dennis also had a double, a walk and a sacrifice bunt, and she finished with two RBIs.

Smith helped herself with two hits and an RBI, Kirsten Williams also had two hits and an RBI, Aldridge had a hit and two runs scored, and Kaylee Bryant had a hit.

Smith pitched the seven-inning complete game, and she held Cairo to five hits and two earned runs with six strikeouts.

After giving up a two-run home run in the bottom of the third, Smith didn’t allow a run the rest of the way.

LaGrange was the home team in game two, and it took the lead on a Dennis solo home run in the top of the first inning.

After Cairo tied it, LaGrange reclaimed the lead in the third inning on a Williams base hit, with Aldridge scoring the go-ahead run.

After Cairo took the lead with two runs in the bottom of the third inning, Smith tied it with a solo home run in the top of the fourth.

It remained deadlocked at 3-3 until the decisive seventh inning.

With one out, Aldridge and Williams came through back-to-back base hits, and a perfectly-executed bunt by Dennis gave LaGrange the lead.

After Williams scored on a passed ball, Marable drove the ball over the right-field fence for a solo home run to cap the scoring.

Smith finished the game with a flourish, striking out the final two batters she faced to end it, and the celebration was on.

“That second game was a really tight game, so I’m just really proud of them,” head coach Gabby Heath said.