Proud program returns to winning ways
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
For decades, the LaGrange High football program has been the gold standard when it comes to success, capturing multiple state championships while putting winning teams on the field year after year.
Recent years have not been kind to the Grangers, though, who won a combined six games from the 2016 to 2019 seasons combined.
The proud program has turned things around in a big way this year, though.
Under the direction of first-year head coach Matt Napier, LaGrange will carry a 6-3 record into Thursday’s regular-season finale against Hardaway at Callaway Stadium.
The Grangers will finish with a winning record for the first time since 2009, the final season for Steve Pardue as head coach, and they’ve qualified for the state playoffs for the first time since 2014.
This season has been particularly satisfying for a group of seniors who haven’t had much to celebrate during their time in the program.
The seniors began their high-school careers enduring a winless season in 2017, and they went 2-8 in 2018 and 2019.
Still, as the calendar changed to 2020, there was a feeling of optimism among the players, even as everything was turned upside-down because of the changes put in place because of the Coronavirus.
“We knew our time would come,” said senior defensive lineman Lataurus Swindle.
Swindle was right.
LaGrange opened the season with a loss to Upson-Lee, but it put together a four-game winning streak before losing to Carver. LaGrange followed that up with two more wins before losing to Troup 14-7 last week.
At 5-2 in Region 2-AAAA, LaGrange still has an opportunity to finish as high as second in the region, or it could finish third or fourth.
“It’s important to play well in this game for our seniors,” said Napier, who came to LaGrange after spending 15 seasons as Callaway’s offensive coordinator. “It’s our last regular-season game, our 10th game. If we can play at a high level, we’ve got a chance to win the ballgame, and the kids are excited about that. We’ve had a good week. We had some new guys moving to new positions, and they got a lot of good reps, and the kids are excited to play.”
LaGrange is coming off a challenging week.
The day before the Troup game was supposed to be played, LaGrange junior Trae Cole was killed in a car wreck, and the game ended up being postponed until Saturday.
While dealing with that heart-break, the Grangers were also short-handed with a handful of key players out of action because of Covid-19 quarantine procedures, and they lost some other players to injury during the game.
Despite everything stacked against them, the Grangers hung tough.
After Troup took a 14-0 lead, LaGrange cut its deficit in half when Jaylan Brown threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Kobe
Jones late in the third quarter.
Later, senior JacQuez Smith blocked a punt, setting LaGrange up deep in Troup territory in the third quarter.
The Grangers were unable to notch the game-tying touchdown, though, and the Tigers earned the 14-7 rivalry win.
“We’re coming off a game unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of with our kids out, and what we were going through,” Napier said. “We definitely didn’t play our best game, and we were limited in what we were able to do. We’re still limited, but we can play better than we did last week. We had a week’s worth of practice (with the new starters). Hopefully we’ll be better from that standpoint.”
That LaGrange has made it to the end of the regular season is a triumph of sorts considering there were questions as to whether any games would be played this season.
Napier began working with the players in January, and the Grangers were preparing for spring practice when everything was shut down as the Coronavirus started to spread.
For more than three months, everything was done virtually, with Napier and the other coaches communicating with his players via Zoom.
Teams were able to get together again in June, although no one knew if there would actually be a season.
Despite that uncertainty, and with the seniors leading the way, LaGrange’s players gave it their all, with the hope that a new season could bring better results.
“We worked hard during the summer, and we didn’t give up because of the Coronavirus,” Swindle said. “We couldn’t let that stop us. We practiced hard, we worked hard out hard. I think that’s made a big impact.”
The season began two weeks later than originally scheduled, but the Grangers did finally get an opportunity to play, and they lost to the Upson-Lee Knights 31-19 on Sept. 4.
LaGrange followed that up with a 35-28 overtime win over Northside-Columbus, and that was the start of a four-game winning streak.
“It was a hard time during the summer thinking you weren’t going to play your senior year,” Swindle said. “It’s good that we got a chance to play.”
The key, Swindle said, was “working hard, staying together.”
Napier, whose first season as a head coach is one he won’t soon forget, is proud of the way the players have dealt with everything they’ve been confronted with.
“This group has had to endure a lot of different adversities and challenges,” Napier said. “The period of time where you practice for a really long time without a game was taxing on kids, and coaches. You practice to play, so that was a really long offseason without competition against another opponent. With the season being pushed back, everything’s been off, but the kids have done well, and I feel like we’ve had tremendous success among all those adversities, and still have an opportunity to have even more success.”
Napier credits the seniors for helping make the transition to a new coach a smooth one.
The seniors began their high-school careers playing for Dialleo Burks, and Chuck Gibbs was the head coach in 2018 and 2019 before Napier took over earlier this year.
“This group of seniors has been through it, with the deaths of their teammates they’ve had to endure, and the lack of success and the tough times,” Napier said. “I can’t thank that group of kids enough for their commitment. There were times where you could have used the Covid-19 stuff as a crutch to say I don’t want to come to work out today. This group of kids just kept showing up all summer long, through the ups and downs, the quarantines, those guys just kept showing up when they were allowed to.”
One of those seniors is linebacker Jarno Huzzie, who has had a big season and is the team’s leading tackler.
Like Swindle, Huzzie did his part to provide leadership during the uncertain summer.
“It’s about being involved, and teaching them how to lock in at the right time, and when it’s time to play, and when it’s not time to play,” Huzzie said.
Huzzie is the leader of a defense that has excelled this season and performed well in the 14-7 loss to Troup.
That the Grangers were in the game until the end was a credit to a defense that gave up some yards, but still held the Tigers to their second-lowest point total of the season.
Junior linebacker Isaiah Jordan led the Grangers with 16 tackles against Troup.
Huzzie has been the leader on the defensive side of the ball, and Napier appreciates everything he has done throughout the season, both on the field and off.
“He’s done a tremendous job of keeping his composure. I think he’s had some struggles in those areas,” Napier said. “The growth he’s had has been tremendous. He’s a competitor, and he plays with that edge that you want.”
Lataurus Swindle, who has moved to the defensive line this season and has been one of the top defensive players, has also been a force for the Grangers.
“He’s done a tremendous job with leadership,” Napier said. “From a defensive standpoint he understands what he’s trying to do. He’s a technician, and he and coach (Thomas) Crocker have a great relationship. He doesn’t lose his emotions, and he plays hard.”
Offensively, senior running back Kale Gibbs has led the charge.
Gibbs was slowed down by Troup’s defense, and it didn’t help that multiple starting offensive linemen were out of action because of quarantine, but he has had a phenomenal season, running for nearly 1,300 yards while averaging more than 10 yards per carry.
“He’s excited about the opportunity to play,” Napier said. “He’s a motivated kid.”
Sophomore Jaylan Brown has also excelled in his first season as the starting quarterback, and his favorite target has been senior AJ Traylor, while Kobe Jones and Tristan Smith have also caught their share of passes.
LaGrange’s offensive line has been a strength all season, although that unit took a major hit with the missing players.
An already depleted offensive line took another loss when the starting center suffered an injury on the fourth play of the game.
LaGrange will have freshman Jycel Mosley playing the all-important center position on Thursday, but Napier said “at least he’s mentally prepared,” after having a few days of practice knowing what his role will be.
LaGrange’s opponent is a Hardaway team that has had an exceptional season.
After losing to Callaway 17-6, Hardaway won five straight games before losing to unbeaten Carver 34-21.
Junior quarterback DJ Lucas has thrown for more than 1,000 yards with 12 touchdowns, and he’s also run for 238 yards with five touchdowns.
The bread-and-butter of Hardaway’s offense is a running game that has 2,506 rushing yards with 28 touchdowns, and Jordan Moultrie leads the way with 884 yards and nine touchdowns.
“They’re super-talented,” Napier said. “They’ve got kids who are Army All-American guys and they have a bunch of really good players outside of that. Their two big offensive linemen are massive, and they have three really good running backs, and they do a good job of spreading the ball around and getting those guys the ball. Defensively, their linebacker corps is as physical a group as we’ve played, so we’ll have to be ready to play physical.”
LAGRANGE VS. HARDAWAY
WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Callaway Stadium
RECORDS: LaGrange (6-3 overall, 5-2 in Region 2-AAAA); Hardaway (7-2 overall, 6-1 in Region 2-AAAA)