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Hard work pays off for Grangers

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

It was a brutal blow to a player hoping to make the most out of his final season of high-school football.

During an early-season game against Northside-Columbus, LaGrange High running back Caleb Ross suffered a severe knee injury, and he soon found out that his time as a high-school player was done.

As disappointing as that was, Ross remained positive, and he was a supportive teammate during a special season that saw the Grangers go 8-4 and reach the second round of the state playoffs.

Fortunately for Ross, he is going to get the chance to keep playing a sport that means so much to him.

Ross has signed a letter of intent to join the football program at Presbyterian College, and he participated in a signing-day ceremony on Wednesday in the Steve Pardue indoor facility.

“It was a big part of our success was his leadership on the sideline,” said LaGrange High head coach Steve Pardue. “His encouragement on the sideline really helped us. Something bad would happen, and he’d be encouraging them as they came off the field. You have a guy like that who has gone through what he had to go through, and that’s even outside the injury. He’s had a tough life, just like a lot of these kids. To get an opportunity like he has, hopefully he’ll be able to go and capitalize on it and make the most of it.”

For Ross, it was all about being supportive of his teammates.

“Even though I tore my ACL, I stayed with the team,” Ross said. “I just put that behind me. I wanted to be the leader I was supposed to be.”

As for Presbyterian, Ross said the campus had a familiar feel to it.

“It hit the spot,” Ross said. “It felt like I was going back to be with the Grangers again. They treated me like it was home.”

Ross was joined at Wednesday’s signing-day ceremony by six of his teammates who are also headed to the next level.

Running back Kale Gibbs will venture to Colorado to become a member of the Air Force Academy family, and LaGrange’s other signees are wide receiver and defensive back AJ Traylor (Citadel), linebacker Jarno Huzzie (New Mexico Military Institute), linebacker Jacquez Smith (Ellsworth Community College), defensive lineman Rashad Walker (El Camino Community College) and defensive lineman Lataurus Swindle (Point University).

Those seniors helped the Grangers enjoy a memorable turnaround season.

The Grangers won a combined four games from 2017 and 2019, and they doubled that win total last season while finishing with a winning record for the first time since 2009.

Jarno Huzzie, LaGrange’s leading tackler last season, said he’s “proud” of the progress the team made last season.

“I’ve seen us all work together,” Huzzie said. “I’ve seen everybody grind during the season and the offseason. I’m really glad for everybody to get a chance to go to college and play ball.”

While Huzzie could have chosen a four-year school, he opted to attend a junior college, feeling that is his best option.

“It’s the best way to go,” Huzzie said. “After a couple of years, you’ll still get an opportunity to go play Division I.”

Jacquez Smith, who is also going the two-year college route, played alongside Huzzie at linebacker, and he said it “means a lot” to be able to share his big day with his friends and teammates.

“I’ve been with them for four years,” Smith said. “We went through a lot of adversity for the four years with coach changes and stuff, but we still worked through it.”

Rashad Walker, a defensive lineman who began his high-school career at Manchester before transferring to LaGrange, has opted to attend a junior college as well.

“It’s a very special day,” Walker said. “When I first started high school, I didn’t think I’d have this opportunity. And then I came to LaGrange, and I just put the work in, and I got this opportunity. I’m thankful for this opportunity. I’m thankful to the coaches, and to coach (Matt) Neighbors who helped me get this opportunity. I’m very thankful.”

Walker worked his way up the depth chart over the years until he became an integral member of the defense.

“They gave me a chance,” Walker said. “I came from scout team and worked my way up. If you put the work in, you’re going to get results.”

The signee who is staying closest to home is defensive lineman Lataurus Swindle, who has signed with Point University in West Point.

“It fit me,” Swindle said. “I think it was better for me and my family.”

Swindle was happy that he was able to exit the high-school stage with a winning season, particularly after the struggles he and his teammates went through in previous years.

“I’m very proud,” Swindle said. “It just showed us that you don’t give up, and that good times are coming.”

One of LaGrange’s most important players last season was AJ Traylor, who was the leading receiver and a standout defensive back.

Traylor was directly involved in some of the biggest moments of the season, and he had a late touchdown catch that helped LaGrange rally to beat New Hampstead 30-26 in the first round of the state playoffs.

During an unusual offseason because of COVID-19, Traylor provided outstanding senior leadership, and he helped make sure the team was ready to roll when the season began.

“He’s embraced that senior leadership role,” Napier said. “Kudos to his personality, his work ethic, his determination. He’s a guy stepping up doing those little things that champions do. He’s been a pleasure to coach.”

LaGrange signees

Kale Gibbs – Air Force Academy

AJ Traylor – The Citadel

Caleb Ross – Presbyterian College

Jarno Huzzie – New Mexico Military Institute

Jacquez Smith – Ellsworth Community College

Rashad Walker – El Camino Community College

Lataurus Swindle – Point University