Lady Grangers chasing state title
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
It’ll be a familiar opponent for the LaGrange High softball team.
From 2016 to 2019, LaGrange and Central-Carroll were in the same region, and they played for the Region 5-AAAA championship last season.
The teams are in separate regions this year, but they still played twice during the regular season, with each team winning once.
On Friday, those two rivals will square off once again, and the stakes will be considerably higher this time around.
LaGrange and Central-Carroll will play at 3:30 p.m. in the semifinals of the Class AAAA state playoffs, with the winner moving a step closer to a state championship.
In Friday’s other semifinal game, defending state-champion Heritage-Catoosa will play West Laurens.
The winners of the two semifinal contests will meet in a winner’s bracket game at 7 p.m. on Friday, while the two losers of the early games will meet in an elimination game at 7 p.m.
The semifinals continue on Saturday with another elimination game at 1 p.m., and the championship game is at 3 p.m.
Central-Carroll has had LaGrange’s number over the years, but the tables were turned in the most recent meeting.
On Sept. 14 in Carrollton, senior pitcher Camden Smith delivered a lock-down performance on the mound, and LaGrange won 6-0.
What impact that game will have on Friday’s showdown in Columbus remains to be seen, but it was a key moment for LaGrange, which has struggled to find any success against Central-Carroll over the years.
“Just knowing that we have the ability to (beat Central) gives you a lot of confidence,” said LaGrange head coach Gabby Heath. “If we had never beaten Central, we wouldn’t have the same mindset. They know it’s possible, which makes it a lot easier to approach. They know it’s possible to win big, too.”
Smith threw a five-hit shutout in the win, and Madison Dennis hit a home run to lead the offensive effort.
That win was part of a successful regular season for the Lady Grangers (23-9), and they’ve kept the good times going during tournament time.
After winning the Region 2-AAAA tournament, LaGrange swept Cairo and Cedartown in the state playoffs to earn a spot in the final four alongside the state’s other elite Class AAAA teams.
Central-Carroll (26-8), the number two seed from Region 7-AAAA, has beaten Arabia Mountain, North Oconee and Thomas County Central in the state playoffs.
“They’re very well-coached, and fundamentally sound,” Heath said of Central-Carroll. “They don’t give up a lot of mistakes. You’ve got to earn whatever you get. We’ve got to do our part offensively, and defensively.”
LaGrange had its hands full with Cedartown in Tuesday’s state-playoff series.
Both games were decided by the slimmest of margins, with LaGrange winning game one 5-4 before completing the sweep with a 4-3 victory.
Smith, who has been on the mound for every big game over the past four seasons, threw two complete games and helped keep a powerful Cedartown offense in check.
Smith was aided by a defense that was superb.
Abby Vanhoose, LaGrange’s shortstop since her freshman season, had a fantastic series, making the routine and spectacular plays alike.
“The ball’s that Abby was able to field and make it look routine, she really struggled with when she was a freshman and a sophomore,” Heath said. “She has the experience to do that.”
Senior second baseman Madison Dennis, like Vanhoose a four-year starter, was also superb on defense, and she made one of the biggest plays of the series.
In game one, Cedartown scored three runs in the sixth inning to pull even, and it threatened to take the lead when Nikolopoulus hit a ball hard on the ground to right side of the infield. Dennis dove to her left and made an outstanding stop, and she threw a strike to first for the third out to keep the game tied, and LaGrange won it with a run in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Third baseman Kirsten Williams also gobbled up everything hit her way, and four-year starter Jacee Marable was a rock at first base.
Junior catcher Holly Lynn completes the infield defense, and she has been behind the plate for every inning of every game this season.
LaGrange’s outfield defense was also terrific with left fielder Mariana Ceja, center fielder Malone Aldridge and right fielder Kaylee Bryant getting the job done.
Offensively, LaGrange has shown off its versatility in the playoffs.
Against Cairo, Dennis, Marable, Smith, Ceja and Vanhoose hit home runs as LaGrange scored 15 runs in the two games combined.
LaGrange scored its runs in a different way against Cedartown.
Lynn hit a home run, but most of LaGrange’s runs were manufactured with aggressive base-running and small ball.
In the first game, LaGrange won it by being aggressive on the bases.
Bryant led off the bottom of the seventh with a single, and she immediately took off for second and slid in safely, and when the throw to second sailed into the outfield, she came all the way home with the winning run.
LaGrange showed off its aggressive base-running again in the first inning of game two.
With two outs, Dennis walked, and she rounded first and surprised Cedartown’s players by racing to second base, and she scored on a wild pitch.
“We knew we had to take advantage of the run opportunities that they gave us,” Heath said. “In the film, they didn’t move fast like that, so we just kept running. We got out several times, but we just kept running.”
While base running was a key, LaGrange also had success at the plate.
Aldridge, LaGrange’s leadoff hitter, had four hits in the two games combined.
Marable had three hits, Ceja, Vanhoose and Bryant had two hits apiece, Lynn had a home run, and Dennis had a hit.
Lynn drove in two runs, and Smith, Williams, Ceja and Bryant each had one RBI.
After the series, since Cedartown’s games are streamed on Facebook and are available to be re-watched, the coaches and players were able to review the games, and Heath felt that was a valuable experience.
“We were able to watch film today, which we’re never able to do, because the Cedartown games were recorded,” Heath said. “We took a day in the classroom and watched and saw the things we can do better, and the things we did great. It was really kind of cool to do that, and have them be able to see it.”
CLASS AAAA FINAL FOUR
WHEN: Friday and Saturday
WHO: LaGrange, Central-Carroll, Heritage-Catoosa and West Laurens
FORMAT: Double elimination
3:30 p.m. – LaGrange vs. Central-Carroll
3:30 p.m. – Heritage-Catoosa vs. West Laurens
7 p.m. – LaGrange/Central winner vs. Heritage/West Laurens winner
7 p.m. – LaGrange/Central loser vs Heritage/West Laurens loser
1 p.m. – Elimination game
3 p.m. – Championship game
5 p.m. – Championship game (if needed)