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LaGrange College baseball program is rolling

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

 

Success didn’t come overnight for David Kelton and the LaGrange College Panthers.

After serving as an assistant coach under Kevin Howard, Kelton took over the baseball program in 2014, and the team had back-to-back losing seasons.

Everything changed in 2016.

Kelton had been recruiting players he believed fit the sort of blue-collar, hard-nosed program he was looking to establish, and 2016 was the year the plan fell into place.

The Panthers, who hadn’t had a winning season since 2010, went 30-13 in 2016, setting the stage for bigger and better things to come.

That 2016 team, despite winning 30 games, did not receive an invitation to the NCAA Division III regional, which was a major disappointment to a team that felt it was deserving of that honor.

The following year, the Panthers left nothing to chance.

The only guaranteed way to get to the NCAA tournament is to win a conference championship, and the Panthers did that in 2017.

In what was arguably the finest season in school history, the Panthers went 40-6 in 2017, and they rolled the USA South tournament championship.

The Panthers won their first two games in an NCAA regional in Virginia, but they lost their next two games and were eliminated.

Despite heavy roster turnover, the Panthers kept the good times going in 2018, finishing with a 30-18 record while claiming another conference title, and once again they went 2-2 in an NCAA regional.

The 2019 team kept the good times rolling, posting a 32-2 record while winning a third straight USA South championship to earn another NCAA invitation.

In 2019, LaGrange College was in a two-team regional with Birmingham Southern, and they played a hard-fought best-of-five series.

After they split the first two games, Birmingham Southern won the winner-take-all fifth game to advance to the Division III World Series.

The Panthers went 12-5 during a 2020 season that was cut short because of COVID-19.

That brings us to 2021, and it has been another fantastic season for Kelton’s Panthers.

The Panthers (24-8) have won a fourth straight USA South tournament title, and on Thursday, they’ll make their fourth consecutive appearance in an NCAA regional.

There are six teams in the regional in High Point, N.C., and the winner will advance to the eight-team Division III World Series.

First up for LaGrange College will be a game against Lynchburg (Va.) on Thursday at 6 p.m., and the double-elimination regional continues through Sunday when a champion will be crowned, and an invitation to the World Series will be issued.

Leading the way for the Panthers are a group of veterans who have been with the program for years, in some cases since 2017.

Trey Pearce, E.J. Churchich, Spencer Douches and J.R. Robinson are all fifth-year seniors, and they decided to return this year after the 2020 season was cut short.

Those players know what it’s like to get to a regional, but they’ve yet to get beyond this point, and that’s obviously the goal this time around.

“Now that we have won the conference championship, our attention moves to winning an NCAA regional tournament,” Pearce said in a story posted on lagrangepanthers.com. “We know that the competition is only going to get more difficult.  It is going to take all of us to win a regional. Our goal is to finish this in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, playing for a national championship. We must take it one pitch, one inning, and one game at a time.”

The Panthers may have had the team to reach the World Series last year, but they didn’t get a chance to find out.

“Last year left a terrible feeling for a lot of us,” Churchich said. “For about a week, I thought my career was over. I am thankful for the opportunity to come back and be able to keep this streak going. This group only has one thing in mind and that is Iowa.”

Douches, LaGrange College’s outstanding closer, said “during my five-year college career, this is the most talented and close-knit team I have been on. One of the things that makes it so great is the experience level. It has been the same core group for the last three years, giving us experience that most teams do not have. Combine that with a coaching staff that pushes us each day to be our absolute best and it creates a winning culture.”

The Panthers are a complete team.

Offensively, the Panthers boast a .331 team batting average, and they’re scoring close to 10 runs per game.

Eight every-day players have averages of .320 or better, and seven players have on-base percentages of at least .444.

Pearce, one of the fifth-year seniors, is hitting .383 with four home runs and 39 RBIs, and Cael Chatham boasts a .372 average with seven home runs, 33 RBIS, and a team-leading 42 runs scored.

McKinley Erves is hitting .359 with three home runs and 32 RBIS, and Joe Ruth has a .353 average with four home runs and 39 RBIs and a team-leading 14 doubles.

Rhett Hebert is hitting .345 with 19 RBIs, and Churchich has a .344 average with seven home runs and a team-best 42 RBIs, and both of those players have 10 doubles.

Jack Layrisson has done his part with a .339 average with five home runs and 28 RBIs, and Rhett Mixon is hitting .320 with 13 RBIs.

David Smigelski, the Panthers’ catcher, is hitting .236 with 13 RBIs.

LaGrange College is getting it done on the pitcher’s mound as well.

Baley Coleman has been the Panthers’ most consistent starter with an 8-3 record and a 3.08 earned run average, and Dalton Brooks is 4-1 with a 3.91 ERA.

Michael Menheart has started four games and is 3-0 with a 2.86 ERA, and J.R. Robinson is 2-1 with six starters.

The bullpen has done great work all season.

Jack Richards has been almost unhittable with a 0.49 ERA in nine appearances, and Tanner Chafin has pitched in 11 games and has a 2.12 ERA.

Brett Caneega, who has pitched in 13 games, has a 2-1 record with a 2.28 ERA, and Douches leads the team with 16 appearances, and he has a 3.16 ERA with a team-best six saves.

Ethan Fry has also pitched well out of the bullpen with a 2.92 ERA spanning seven appearances.

LaGrange College’s opponent on Thursday is Lynchburg (34-13), which won the Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship.