2023 season preview: LaGrange is looking to get back to the promised land
Published 8:00 am Saturday, February 11, 2023
LaGrange is chasing its second state title in program history. After finishing the 2022 season as the 4A runner-ups, there is significant hype surrounding the program. Head coach Donnie Branch plans to cut out the noise and get his guys to focus on what is going to be a grind of a season.
“I’m sure the parents and fans think about how close we got to a state championship and expect us to be right back there in the same, but that’s not how it works,” Branch said. “I want to keep things very simple for the players. We have to take care of the day-to-day and take it one game at a time. If you can take that approach, good things will happen.”
This season should prove to be even more of a challenge than last season as the Grangers will be in a tougher region than. LaGrange is ranked no. 2 in the Coaches Box Georgia pre-season poll for 4A, but the Grangers will have to contend with three other teams in the top-10 (no. 5 Troup, no. 8 Whitewater and no. 9 Starr’s Mill). This does not even include Fayette County, who went 21-12 and made the playoffs a season ago and Trinity Christian, who made the second round of the 1A playoffs last year.
“I like being in a good region, but we ended up getting in a loaded region,” Branch said. “There’s going to be at least one really good team not in the playoffs, and if you told me the state championship would come from our region, I would not be surprised.”
The Grangers will have a good mix of youth and veteran guys as they prepare for a gauntlet of a schedule.
“We have five seniors this year (Trevor Booton, Trey Cook, Preston Pressley, Seth Stargell and Cole Garner), and they have stepped up to lead as a group,” Branch said. “They have been incredible for the young guys.”
This year’s LaGrange team will have a different feel than last years. While the team a season ago brought some pop and power off the bat, this team will be more about speed and finesse. How they play the game might be different, but the Granger culture remains.
The Grangers will have a new starter behind the plate after Zack Thompson departed to play college ball after the conclusion of last season. Up steps Cole Garner who transferred in from Northside (Columbus).
“He played travel ball with a lot of the guys on the team, so he was connected with them already,” Branch said. “He’s come right in, and it feels like he’s been here for four years.”
Garner is still learning the Granger way but is poised to have a big season behind the plate.
Pitching will be the true strength of the LaGrange roster this year, returning the top three pitchers from a season ago.
“These guys have about as much big game experience as you could ask for,” Branch said. “They are the heart and soul of this year’s team.”
The Grangers will return Trevor Booton, an Auburn commit, and Trey Cook as their top two pitchers. Both will be called upon to lead the pitching staff this season.
“Trey and Trevor are seniors, and they have been through it all,” Branch said.
Caden Wood got a ton of big game experience as a freshman a season ago. He pitched in three winner-take-all games in the state playoffs last year and came away with a win in all three games. He will be required to have a bigger role in the team’s regular season this year.
“We have a wealth of confidence in him,” Branch said. “He is going to have to pitch more in the region this year with how difficult our schedule is. There are some adjustments he is going to have to make. We won’t have to adjust his poise though, he’s an incredibly smart player and really tough.”
Robbie Parker will see time on the mound as a reliever and may even start some games. Garner is a versatile player that could time on the mound as well.
Three of the four starting infielders will return from last year’s team that made it to the state championship series.
Cooper Stephens will once again start at first base. After a stellar freshman year, the team is expecting big things out of him in his second year with the Grangers.
“I thought he had an absolutely outstanding freshman year,” Branch said. “He performed really well in the championship series. He’s a good all-around player.”
Robbie Parker got in the program late last year and had to play catchup. This year, he has been in the program since day one. After starting last season at second base, he will be swapping spots with Preston Pressley and will be playing shortstop this year while Pressley transitions to second base.
“We moved Robbie Parker to shortstop, and he transferred in late last year and had to adjust,” Branch said. “Preston Pressley was our starting shortstop last year, and he will be our second baseman this year. They flipped. He got a lot of big hits last season, and he’s a tough guy to get out at the bottom of the order.”
Sophomore Grady Westmoreland has turned into a starting caliber player in the offseason and will serve as the primary backup for these two guys. He will also receive some start this year and will see his playtime grow tremendously from a season ago. Westmoreland could also see some time on the mound.
Third base will see the one new starter in the infield after Colton Esposito graduated and went off to play college baseball. Branch is still figuring out who can be an every game starter at the spot and will likely go with a platoon approach early in the season.
“Three guys are battling it out for that position and names are written in pencil at this time of the year,” Branch said. “Bryson Monteith, Rob Skinner and Jackson Bozeman are all pretty close right now.”
Ty Monteith is a player that will provide some depth and cover at the infield positions.
Seth Stargell is one of the few players whose name is written in pen on the team sheet. The Albany State commit is the team’s most experienced outfielder and gives the Grangers a weapon at the top of the order.
“He’s doing good things for us,” Branch said.
Tanner Langley will be one of the starters in the outfield as well. The junior has always been a superb defensive outfielder but has taken major strides at the plate in the last year.
“Through the first five weeks of practice, he has been one of our top 2-3 players,” Branch said. “He’ll be in the outfield somewhere. Last year, he didn’t hit much but between last year and this year he has really gone to work and got better swinging the bat. He went from being a guy that struggled at the plate to being a guy that might be our leadoff hitter.”
When healthy, Gryson Cockrell will be the third starter in the outfield. Cockrell injured his shoulder late in last year’s postseason and had surgery, which kept him off of the football field in the fall. He is still working his way back and will be a crucial part of the lineup when healthy.
“He missed a ton of the offseason workouts, so he is playing catch up with his body right now,” Branch said. “He’s still working his way back, but we like him and what he can provide for us.”
Cook will provide some depth at the outfield positions but ideally Branch wants to use him only as a pitcher and designated hitter.