LaGrange, Cedartown meet in quarterfinal showdown
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
All eyes are on Columbus.
The LaGrange High softball team will host Cedartown on Tuesday, with the winner advancing to Columbus for the semifinals of the Class AAAA state playoffs this weekend.
Getting to Columbus has been a primary goal for the Lady Grangers since the season began, and now they’re two victories away from making that a reality.
“We went to the elite eight last year, and we’re really happy we got there this year, but we plan to go further,” said Madison Dennis, LaGrange’s senior second baseman.
LaGrange is an experienced team that includes six seniors, including Dennis, who have been key members of the program since they were freshmen.
LaGrange didn’t make it to the state playoffs in 2017, and it lost to Oconee County in the first round of state in 2018.
A year ago, LaGrange enjoyed a breakthrough at state, beating Denmark and Shaw to get to Columbus for the eight-team state finals.
This year, to limit the number of people in Columbus, the state finals only includes the top four teams in each classification.
“We’ve always done a little bit more every year,” said LaGrange head coach Gabby Heath. “The first round, the second round, the elite eight. Hopefully we can go further this year.”
Standing in LaGrange’s way is a red-hot Cedartown team that has been putting up big numbers in the playoffs.
In four state-playoff games, all victories, Cedartown has scored 56 runs, and it swept a strong Flowery Branch team to advance to the quarterfinals.
Cedartown finished third in Region 7-AAAA before beating Druid Hills and Flowery Branch to become one of the last eight teams standing.
LaGrange, which won the Region 2-AAAA championship, had a first-round bye at state, and it beat Cairo in a second-round showdown.
LaGrange beat Cairo 9-1 in the first game, and it finished the sweep with a 6-3 victory after scoring three runs in the seventh and final inning to take the lead.
As has been the case in every big game over the past four seasons, senior Camden Smith was on the mound for LaGrange, and she was outstanding as usual in throwing back-to-back complete games.
Smith also contributed offensively with one of LaGrange’s five home runs, and the others were hit by Dennis, Abby Vanhoose, Mariana Ceja and Jacee Marable.
There was no suspense in the first game, with LaGrange taking control early and easing to the blowout win.
It was a different story in the second game, with LaGrange coming to bat in the seventh inning in a tie game.
Dennis drove in Malone Aldridge with a bunt for the go-ahead run, and Marable capped the three-run rally with a solo home run.
The series win meant this close-knit group of players would get to keep playing together, and it also extended the playing career of the six seniors.
The seniors are Abby Vanhoose (shortstop), Camden Smith (pitcher), Jacee Marable (first baseman), Madison Dennis (second base), Kirsten Williams (third base), and Malone Aldridge (outfield), and those players have made up a majority of the starting lineup for four seasons.
In fact, in the first game of the 2017 season against Callaway, Smith, Vanhoose, Marable, Dennis and Aldridge were all in the starting lineup, and they’ve remained there ever since.
Williams played as a freshman and a sophomore, and she became a starter last season.
The seniors have been teammates since they were eighth-graders playing junior-varsity softball, and many of them were on the same travel team before that.
“I just want to go as far as I can,” said Smith, who plans on playing college softball at the University of West Georgia. “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).”
Vanhoose, who has been a fixture at shortstop for four seasons, said “it’s been a blast” to share the field with her friends and teammates.
“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.”
The three other players in the starting lineup are underclassmen Holly Lynn (catcher), Mariana Ceja (outfield) and Kaylee Bryant (outfield).
“Including practices, we have a bunch of fun,” Ceja said. “We like to goof off sometimes, and then we know when to be serious.”
Leading the way is head coach Gabby Heath, and she is aided by her valuable assistant coaches, Craig Mobley and Jim Reed.
Heath has enjoyed getting to know the players over the years, and last week the coaches spent time interacting with them on a more personal level.
“We did a lot of character building, just talking about the big picture, having those conversations instead of just practicing,” Heath said. “We shared stories. They opened up to us. It was a really good team-building week. We enjoyed it.”
That LaGrange would make a run at state isn’t surprising considering every key player from last year’s team is back, but there are no guarantees in sports.
The players and coaches put in plenty of time at the field in preparation for the season, and that effort has paid big dividends.
“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,” Heat said. “It shows a great commitment to experiencing it again.”
WHEN: Tuesday, 5 p.m. (doubleheader)
WHERE: Granger Park
WHAT: Third round of Class AAAA state playoffs
ON THE LINE: Winner advances to state semifinals in Columbus on Friday