LaGrange opens against Northside
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
It’s game day for the LaGrange High baseball team, and there will be a familiar face in the opposing dugout.
LaGrange’s season-opening opponent on Wednesday is Northside-Columbus, which is led by Craig Garner, who had been the head coach at Troup High for nearly 20 years before taking on a new challenge.
Garner has coached plenty of games at Granger Park over the years, but this will be the first time he’ll do so not wearing the Troup High uniform.
Garner, who was a standout baseball player at wrestler at Troup, played baseball at LaGrange College before beginning his coaching career at his alma mater.
“I’ve had 24 great years (at Troup), 24 years of great times and memories,” Garner said last summer. “It’ll always be a part of my life. I’m going to miss the players more than anything.”
Garner has taken over a Northside program that has enjoyed plenty of success and won a state championship in 2019.
Two of the coaches who were a part of that 2019 team, Derek Branch and David Buchanan, are LaGrange High graduates.
Derek Branch, in fact, is the son of LaGrange High coach Donnie Branch, who has won more than 500 games during his Hall of Fame career.
This will be LaGrange’s first game since the 2020 season was cut short in March because of COVID-19.
The Grangers were 9-3 and had won four in a row and were preparing for the start of region play when the season ended.
The Grangers lost a large group of seniors, and Donnie Branch was disappointed they didn’t get a chance to finish the season.
“I wanted to see them get to play it out, those seniors,” Branch said. “We lost some high-character people. And some of them happened to be good at baseball. These were some great kids. Those folks are going to be really successful human beings.”
In preparation for a new season, the Grangers had a busy offseason, and official preseason practice began at the start of February.
Among the players Branch will be relying on are the four returning starters, pitcher and infielder Matthew Morgan, outfielders Landon Tucker and Will Alford, and catcher Zack Thompson.
The other every-day players, as well as most of the pitchers, will be getting their first significant taste of varsity playing time.
Branch feels the Grangers are as prepared as they can be following a productive offseason that included early-morning workouts at the school.
“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.”