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Memorable turnaround season for Grangers

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

They came so far, and accomplished so much, but they wanted more.

The LaGrange Grangers had their most successful season in more than 10 years, but as will be the case for nearly every team in the state, there was a feeling of unfinished business after playing their final game.

LaGrange, which beat New Hampstead in opening round of the Class AAAA state playoffs, fell to Perry 34-4 last week in a second-round game.

“We didn’t play our best. That was disappointing,” said Matt Napier, who has completed his first season as LaGrange’s head coach. “We made some mistakes we don’t usually make, but we’re proud of everything they did. We accomplished some things (the program) hadn’t done in a while.”

After rallying from nine points down in the fourth quarter to beat New Hampstead 30-26, LaGrange went on the road to play Perry filled with confidence, but the night belonged to the home team.

“You never want to go out on a losing note,” Napier said. “Only one team in each classification gets to go out on a winning note. We weren’t that team this year, but we were proud of the kids and their effort and the improvement we were able to make in a short period of time. I don’t think there’s any doubt the team got a lot better as the year went along. The growth that we have achieved from the Upson-Lee game (in the season opener) all the way until the end when we were playing last week was tremendous. It really gives that fire and that motivation for the future to be brighter.”

LaGrange (8-4) finished with a winning record for the first time since 2009, and it won a playoff game for the first time since 2012.

What the Grangers accomplished this season was especially noteworthy considering what the past four years have been like.

From 2016 to 2019, the Grangers won a combined six games, and that included a winless season in 2017.

So in one season, LaGrange won two more games than it did in the previous four years combined.

Napier, who was in his first season as head coach after spending the previous 15 years as Callaway’s offensive coordinator, is particularly happy that a group of seniors who hadn’t had much success before were able to go out on a high note.

“This is a year we’ll never forget,” Napier said. “These seniors were able to have success they haven’t had before. We’ll miss them.”

One of those seniors is running back Kale Gibbs, who had a brilliant final season, and he had a strong effort in his last high-school game.

Gibbs ran for 161 yards on 24 carries against a stout Perry defense, and he finished the season with more than 1,700 rushing yards.

Gibbs, along with a handful of the other seniors, will get to continue playing the game on the college level.

Another one of the seniors, AJ Traylor, played almost every snap late in the season as a wide receiver and defensive back, and he also played on special teams.

Defensive linemen Lataurus Swindle and Thad Dixon, linebackers Jarno Huzzie and Jacquez Smith, along with offensive linemen Brandon Wortham and Elijah Quimbayo, were some of the other seniors who helped the Grangers enjoy so much success this year.

“They’ve had a lot of adversity in their high-school career,” Napier said of the seniors. “It was pleasing to be able to come in and win eight games and make it to the second round with that group.”

While the seniors will be missed, the future appears bright with so many talented players returning who now have a year’s worth of varsity experience under their belt.

Among the returnees is sophomore quarterback Jaylan Brown, who threw for more than 1,700 yards this season and started every game.

Most of the offensive linemen will also return, as will running back Asa Leath, fullback Towson Partin, tight end Parker Shattuck, and wide receivers Kobe Jones, Tae Snead and Tristan Smith.

Those players helped the Grangers average nearly 30 points per game this season after they scored less than 10 points a game last year.

“That’s a tremendous accomplishment for our first year, and we’re looking for improvement on that,” said Napier, who was the offensive coordinator for four seasons at Callaway before coming to LaGrange. “That’s definitely something we’re proud of.”

Many of LaGrange’s top defensive players will return, including Montavious Martin, Isaiah Jordan, David Paredes, Kobe Jones, Kway Coverson, and Tyreeq Carston.

Also coming back is junior place kicker Micah Prophett, who was a weapon for the Grangers.

How hungry the returning players are to build on what they accomplished this season was evident soon after the final game was played.

Not long after the game ended, Napier began to receive inquiries from the players about getting into the weight room.

Usually teams take some time off after the final game before beginning the offseason strength and conditioning program in January, but Napier said the players didn’t want to wait.

“I had several kids call me and text me, when’s the weight room going to be open, when are we starting workouts, when are we getting going,” Napier said. “If I’ve got this many kids asking and wanting to come, I’ll open the doors and see who comes after school, and they were coming out of the woodwork, the Monday after the season’s over with.”

That, Napier believes, is a positive sign for the program.

“You’ve got to feel good about the future when the kids are eager and coming after you to get in the weight room and put in the work,” Napier said. “That was pleasing today. As disappointed as we were to lose, and we felt we were god enough to win and to not get it, boy that renews your spirit as a coach to have players so excited about the future and beating the door down to come work.”

As for the 2020 season, it’s one that the coaches and players will no doubt vividly remember for a long time, not only because of what happened on the football field.

This was the year of Covid-19, and while the season went on, it was unusual in so many ways, yet the Grangers persevered and had an ultra-successful season.

“Obviously that’s not going to be what we expect to do is get to the second round of the playoffs,” Napier said. “We obviously want to win the region championship and play deep in the playoffs every year, but for first year we’re pleased.”

In the Perry game, not much went right for LaGrange.

While the Grangers moved the ball well at times, they were unable to finish drives and had zero offensive points.

LaGrange’s only points came on a pair of safeties which occurred when the snap to Perry’s punter went awry and out of the end zone.

After the second of those two safeties, the Grangers were down 10-4 late in the first half and very much in the game.

On the free kick after the second safety, the ball hovered in the wind, and when it landed, a Perry player pounced on it.

Perry took advantage of that break to score a touchdown and take a 17-4 lead at the half.

“That was a momentum-changer,” Napier said. “The ball floated up there, and the players for both teams were kind of standing there staring at it. They got it, and they scored, and it was 17-4 instead of 10-4. That was big.”

Perry added on two more second-half touchdowns, including one on a fake field-goal attempt, to put it away.

While it was a frustrating night for the Grangers, Napier was proud of the way the players handled themselves when things were getting a bit chippy.

“It was a tough night, but the kids finished the game the right way and showed character and integrity,” Napier said.