Grangers gearing up for season
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
The LaGrange Grangers were rolling.
After a doubleheader sweep of Spalding County, the Grangers had won five consecutive games to improve to 9-3, and they were feeling confident heading into their region opener against Cartersville.
Unfortunately for the Grangers, what the remainder of the 2020 baseball season held in store will forever be a mystery.
The day after LaGrange played Spalding County the season was put on hold because of concerns over COVID-19, and about a month later, the season was canceled.
“We were playing our best baseball,” said LaGrange head coach Donnie Branch. “We’d won five in a row, swept a doubleheader that day. We walk off the field, and that was it.”
It was a tough on all of the players, particularly the seniors who had their final season cut short.
“It was devastating,” Branch said. “We thought we had a chance to win the region. That was a team that had the makings of a run. You know how it goes. You may not, but we had the makings of a run. We had a shot. I feel bad when I see those kids. I text them, and I check on them.”
While the seniors from that 2020 team have gone their separate ways, and a handful of them are now playing college baseball, the show goes on for the Grangers.
LaGrange is wrapping up its second full week of preseason practice in preparation for a season that begins on Feb. 18 against Northside-Columbus.
While official practice is only two weeks old, the work has been going on for months, with the players working out with coaches in the early hours in the school’s new indoor practice facility, or at the baseball complex at Granger Park.
“We’ve done more than we ever have,” Branch said. “We were further along than we’ve ever been as far as pure baseball stuff, probably because of the excitement of the new facility. At 6 a.m., we were doing four-on-one. Our kids are dedicated.”
The Grangers were hit hard by graduation following the shortened 2020 season.
Among the players who graduated were college signees Charles Crawford, Mason Green and Walton Lanier, and some other talented seniors exited the stage as well.
Among the returning players is senior pitcher and infielder Matthew Morgan, senior outfielder Will Alford, senior infielder and pitcher Landon Tucker, and junior catcher Zack Thompson.
Morgan will be the staff ace, and he’ll also be asked to take on a more significant offensive role this season.
“Matthew Morgan, he just keeps upping his game,” Branch said. “He’s playing short and second and pitching. We’re going to need a lot more offense out of him. He’s never really had to hit because we had hitters.”
The man Morgan will delivering his pitches to is Thompson, who Branch said “keeps getting bigger and stronger, and he’s a great leader.”
Morgan and Tucker are members of a deep pitching staff that will be a strength of the team, and that depth could come in handy if players have to be quarantined along the way.
“The strength of our team is 100 percent pitching depth,” Branch said. “We have 12 guys that pitch on the varsity. Some of them have no experience, but we can put somebody out there all day long and they’ll generally throw strikes and give us a chance. That helps when you start getting in chaos (because of quarantine). I’m hoping that’s an advantage.”
Most of the key hitters from last season’s team graduated, and perhaps predictably, the hitters have struggled so far during intra-squad scrimmages.
“The one thing we’re lagging behind is just hitting the baseball,” Branch said. “We need a little confidence. Unfortunately, we play a brutal first 10 games.”
The top returning hitter is Alford, and Branch said he’s had his bat working during the scrimmages.
“As bad as we’ve looked in our scrimmages, he’s been good,” Branch said.
The four seniors on the team are Alford, Morgan, Tucker and Matthew Lamb, and Branch is pleased with the leadership they’ve been showing.
“Our four seniors have been everything and more, as far as the intangibles,” Branch said.
As Branch prepares for the season, he knows there will likely be bumps in the road and obstacles to overcome because of COVID-19.
Already the Grangers have been hit by quarantine, with a handful of players out of action at the moment.
The Grangers won’t play a game for more than two weeks, but Branch knows he has to be prepared to lose players when the season does begin.
“The people that can adapt and adjust are the ones that will end up having really good years,” Branch said. “Here today, we had a plan, and it changed to something else. We had a scrimmage scheduled for Saturday, and now I’m calling up eighth and ninth-graders so that we can do it. But guess what, if we had a game today, we’d take those 13 over there to play and we’d figure it out.”