Defense dominates as LaGrange cruises into the second round of the playoffs

Published 7:14 pm Saturday, November 11, 2023

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LaGrange brushed aside Westover 45-6 in the first round of the AAAA state playoffs on Saturday.

“Wins are good, but playoff wins are even better,” LaGrange coach Matt Napier said, flashing a big smile. “When you’re playing in a game like this, you want to come out and play the right way, and our guys did that today.”

The Grangers were in complete control from the start as their defense dominated from the opening whistle until the game’s conclusion.

The Patriots did not breach the LaGrange defense until they were trailing 45-0 with just seconds to go in the third quarter.

“A lot of defense is about effort and physicality, and we have that to go along with coach (Thomas) Burton and our defensive coaching staff coming up with a game plan each week that our guys can execute,” Napier said. 

Harris Grace and Gryson Cockrell each came away with a fumble recovery while Kayden Sutton had an interception and a long return to go with it in the first half. The Grangers were also able to force a fumble and get the recovery in the second half as well.

The rain and wind were not easy to handle, but the Grangers were able to keep their hands on the football for the most part with just one turnover.

On offense, the Malik Kemp-Steven Hill connection was as strong as ever as Kemp hit Hill for two touchdowns in the first half.

“We work day in and day out, and sometimes we stay after practice to work even more,” Kemp said. “We just try to focus on getting a little better together each day.”

The defense forced a three-and-out to start the game and the Granger offense found the end zone shortly thereafter, driving down the field and taking the lead with a short touchdown rush from Jonathan Keys.

The Grangers were off to the races from there.

The next LaGrange drive featured Malachi Fannin-Render heavily, and he found pay dirt late in the first quarter to double LaGrange’s lead.

Fannin-Render is somehow making a major impact on the team despite tearing his ACL in the spring.

“When something like that happens, you don’t expect to have him back this season,” Napier said. “Your timeframe is not usually this short, but that’s a credit to him because he worked his tail off to get back.

“Seeing him back out there makes my heart smile.”

Kemp and Hill then connected on their two touchdown passes that were less than 90 seconds apart.

“They have worked hard every day at practice to get that synergy,” Napier said. “When you believe in each other like they do, that’s already half the battle right there.”

Kemp, a senior, kept up his dominant playoff debut with the Grangers, taking a carry 18 yards for a touchdown with 34 seconds left in the first half to put LaGrange up 35-0 at the break.

The Granger’s offensive line allowed whoever was toting the rock plenty of space to operate in.

Jhamarion Johnson rumbled down the sideline on the opening possession of the second half for the Grangers and found the end zone to put the final nail in the coffin for Westover.

The Grangers were not done scoring however as Mason Calhoun hit a 40-yard field goal later in the third quarter.

By the time the fourth quarter came around, LaGrange led 45-6 and a running clock ensued. Neither team got much traction as the reserves entered the game.

After the disappointment of a first-round loss last season, the Grangers came out to prove a point.

“The atmosphere was amazing, this place was electric despite it being cold,” Kemp said about his playoff debut. “This was a big win for us because it’s probably our last home game of the season, so we wanted to make it special.”

LaGrange will be hitting the road next Friday to take on reigning state champions Benedictine.

“It only gets more difficult from here, so we know that we can’t celebrate this one for too long,” Napier said. “We are going to have to come in ready to work next week.”