Grangers happy to be at home
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
When Matt Napier arrived as LaGrange High’s head football coach earlier this year, he knew there was work to do.
The proud program had fallen on hard times, and the Grangers had only won a combined six games over the previous four years.
While Napier was focused on creating a foundation that would hopefully lead to a more prosperous future, he wasn’t about to neglect the present.
When Napier took an account of the players he had available, he felt the pieces were in place to put a winning team on the field this season.
“I had several people come up to me and say you’ve got a bunch of young kids,” Napier said. “You’re going to be good down the road, but we’re trying to be good right now. We want to win right now. This group of kids, this group of seniors, we want to win for them. They’re not part of the future. We want to give them everything we had to make sure it was the best year we could possibly have.”
So as the Grangers made their way through a topsy-turvy offseason because of Covid-19 protocols, they were solely focused on making the 2020 season as successful as possible.
“Each year, you look at the quality of team you have, and you try to make the most of it, try to be the best you can be,” Napier said. “Did you win as many as you could from a talent standpoint? We thought we had good enough talent to be successful, and we definitely went about it with that mindset.”
That mindset has paid major dividends for the Granges, who are in the midst of their most successful season in more than a decade.
LaGrange, after beating Hardaway 20-19 last week, finished the regular season with a 7-3 record, and it will host a state-playoff game after earning the number two seed in Region 2-AAAA.
LaGrange’s opponent will be New Hampstead, the number three seed from Region 3-AAAA, and the game will be held at Callaway Stadium on Saturday, with kickoff set for 6 p.m.
The Grangers will finish with a winning record for the first time since 2009, and that was also the last year they hosted a state-playoff game.
If LaGrange prevails on Saturday, it will win a playoff game for the first time since 2012.
“We’re looking forward to the LaGrange community showing up and supporting these kids,” Napier said. “It’s been a lot time since we hosted a playoff game.”
The Grangers have gotten it done with a high-powered offense that has averaged more than 30 points per game, with senior running back Kale Gibbs leading the way.
Gibbs has run for 1,346 yards on 143 carries with 15 touchdowns, and he had 152 yards with a touchdown in last week’s critical win over Hardaway.
Sophomore quarterback Jaylan Brown has excelled in his first season as a starter, and wide receivers Kobe Jones, AJ Traylor, Tristan Smith and Magic Johnson have each made big plays in the passing game.
It also helps that the offensive line, under the direction of position coach David Pleasants, has thrived all season, even when a number of starters were forced to the sideline because of quarantine procedures.
LaGrange’s defense is coming off arguably its best performance of the season, even though leading tackler Jarno Huzzie was unable to play with an injury.
To have a chance at finishing second, LaGrange not only needed to beat Hardaway, but it couldn’t allow more than 20 points.
The Hawks reached 19 points in the third quarter, but they were held scoreless the rest of the way, with junior safety Isaiah Jordan leading the way with 11 tackles.
LaGrange also excelled on special teams against Hardaway.
Micah Prophett made two field goals and two extra points, Christian Ceja did an outstanding job on kickoffs, freshman punter Parker Shattuck helped LaGrange control field position, Kobe Jones blocked an extra-point attempt, and Montavious Martin blocked what would have been the game-winning field goal in the closing moments.
“Coach (Ben)Thrasher is our special-teams coordinator, and our entire coaching staff has responsibilities within each side of the ball,” Napier said. “They do a good job of taking ownership of their responsibilities, and then the kids do a good job of understanding that it’s a huge aspect of the game.
“We did a good job in all phases of the game against Hardaway, and special teams really helped us be able to win that football game, with the blocked (extra point), and the blocked field goal, and the interception on the two-point conversion. All those things were a big part of us being successful, and being able to win the game.”
While Prophett attempts LaGrange’s extra points and field goals, Ceja handles the kickoff responsibilities, and he has thrived in that role.
One of Ceja’s kickoffs went into the end zone for a touchback, and Napier said “the rest of them he pinned them back, and our kickoff team did a tremendous job. We kicked it right to their Division 1, five-star guy all night. Our kids tackled him inside the 25-yard line every time.”
Napier added that freshman Koron Smith, who had six tackles from his linebacker position, “made a lot of plays on kickoffs.”
Standing in LaGrange’s way on Saturday is New Hampstead (6-1), which averages nearly 40 points per game while giving up barely 10 points a game.
New Hampstead is led by Noddy Thomas, who in the regular-season finale against Johnson rushed for 131 yards with three touchdowns while also intercepting two passes.
For LaGrange, and every team in the playoffs, just getting to this point is a triumph of sorts.
That there would even be a season was very much in doubt during the summer, yet the Grangers played all 10 of their regular-season games, and now they’re hosting a playoff game.
“There were some circumstances where you questioned whether you’d even make it to this point,” Napier said. “It’s cool to be here, and I know the kids are excited. I’m just really, really proud for this group of seniors that have been through so much. To have the opportunity to be in the playoffs, to host a playoff game, and to do a lot of things that they hadn’t been able to do, it’s a special group to be able to accomplish that, especially with the things they’ve had to fight through and go through. I’m proud for them, and proud for our team and their commitment and the work ethic they have. It’s pleasing to see those guys get the opportunity.”
WHEN: Saturday, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Callaway Stadium
WHAT: First round of Class AAAA state playoffs
RECORDS: LaGrange (7-3 overall, 6-2 in Region 2-AAAA); New Hampstead (6-1 overall, 1-1 in Region 3-AAAA)