Special season continues for Grangers
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
The LaGrange Grangers are hoping to go somewhere they haven’t been in 12 years.
In 2008, LaGrange was in the midst of a remarkable, multi-year stretch of success, and it advanced to the semifinals of the playoffs that season.
Since that season, LaGrange has only won one playoff game, and it hasn’t made it past the first round since 2008.
LaGrange will look to remedy that situation on Friday when it visits Perry for a second-round matchup in the Class AAAA state playoffs.
It has already been a remarkable turnaround season for the Grangers (8-3), who will finish with a winning record for the first time since 2009.
The Grangers won a combined six games from 2016 to 2019, and they matched that win total eight games into this season.
Leading the way is first-year head coach Matt Napier, who came to LaGrange after spending the previous 15 seasons as Callaway’s offensive coordinator.
“You take this group of seniors who have been through so much, so many trials, and it’s special to be able to succeed when they’ve struggled so much,” Napier said. “The sense of pride you have for them after seeing the commitment and the hard work that they’ve put in, it’s a heart-warming thing as a coach. I’m excited for them, and all the players. We’re in a situation that LaGrange hasn’t been in in a long time playing at this time. The energy from the players that we have is really positive. It’s exciting. We had playoff pizza this week. It’s a bunch of different things like that that I’m glad the kids got to experience. It’s what makes high-school football special, those experiences. You get to go to battle with your teammates and your friends, and anytime you have success it makes it even better.”
LaGrange kept its season alive with a thrilling 30-26 win over New Hampstead in the first round of the playoffs.
Trailing 26-17 late in the fourth quarter, LaGrange scored two touchdowns in less than 20 seconds to turn a nine-point deficit into a four-point lead.
After Jaylan Brown threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to AJ Traylor, Micah Prophett made the extra point to cut New Hampstead’s lead to 26-24.
Following the touchdown, Napier called for an onside kick.
Prophett’s kick bounced high off of a New Hampstead player, and the ball rolled all the way inside the 10-yard line where it was recovered by Jeffery Sims.
On the next play, Kale Gibbs scored on an 8-yard run, and the Grangers had the lead.
The defense made one final stop, and the Grangers had their first playoff win since 2012.
“We’ve got a lot of heart. We don’t give up,” said one of the seniors, defensive lineman Lataurus Swindle. “We’ll fight until there’s no time on the clock. Like last week (a 20-19 win over Hardaway), we fought tooth and nail, and we brought that same mentality this week.”
LaGrange has rallied from fourth-quarter deficits three times this season to win, and it also earned an overtime victory over Northside-Columbus.
In one of LaGrange’s losses, it battled from back from a 14-0 deficit against Troup to make a game of it before losing 14-7.
The Troup game came just two days after the LaGrange football family had to deal with the tragic death of teammate Trae Cole in a car wreck.
It’s a team that, no matter the circumstances, believes it can win.
Gibbs, who scored the go-ahead touchdowns against Hardaway and New Hampstead, said that no-quit attitude is a product of “how close we’ve come together as a brotherhood. We’ve had losses in the past. We’ve had the loss of three different teammates. We know what it’s like to be down. We know how to lean on each other. We pick each other back up, and that’s how we come back in games like these.”
The Grangers’ ability to persevere, to overcome any obstacle in their way, has been inspiring for Napier.
“The effort the kids play with is something that’s encouraging not only as a coach, but as a person,” Napier said. “No matter the circumstances, they continue to play hard. We’ve been down so many times this year, whether it was all the way back to the Columbus game or the Northside game where we had to find a way to win. They had to learn that if we’ll just keep digging, we’ll find a way to be successful. It’s a credit to their heart, and their will, and their competitive nature. When things get tough, they continue to grind and fight.”
After struggling offensively in recent years, the Grangers haven’t had any trouble putting points on the board this season.
Leading the way is Gibbs, who has run 1,563 yards on 171 carries, good for an average of more than nine yards per attempt, and he has scored 16 touchdowns.
Gibbs had a 12-yard touchdown run to give LaGrange the lead against Hardaway, and his 8-yard scoring run completed the comeback against New Hampstead.
Sophomore Jaylan Brown, meanwhile, has exceled in his first season as a starter, and he has a talented group of wide receivers to throw the ball to including AJ Traylor, Kobe Jones, Magic Johnson, Tae Snead and Tristan Smith. Brown struggled at times against New Hampstead, but he came through when his teammates needed him most.
“He’s still a young quarterback, and we’ve got a young team,” Gibbs said. “We’re expecting bumps and bruises, but that’s what makes us such a great team. We’re able to overcome those bumps and bruises.”
LaGrange has also overcome some difficulties on the offensive line, with numerous starters missing time because of quarantine procedures.
Whoever has been on the offensive line has produced and helped the Grangers keep scoring points in bunches.
It’s a group that includes Elijah Quimbayo, Qua Thornton, KT Owens, Brandon Wortham, Kavarious Perry, Jackson Dennis, Thad Dixon and Christian Rothermel.
LaGrange’s defense has given up some points the past two weeks, but it has risen to the occasion with the games on the line.
LaGrange held Hardaway scoreless in the fourth quarter, and New Hampstead’s final points came on a field goal early in the fourth quarter.
One of LaGrange’s senior leaders, linebacker Jarno Huzzie, had a monster game against New Hampstead with 18 tackles, and junior linebacker Isaiah Jordan had 15 tackles.
Swindle had six tackles, senior defensive lineman Thad Dixon had four tackles, and junior safety Montavious Martin had three tackles with four pass breakups.
In the big win over Hardaway, Jordan led LaGrange with 11 tackles, junior defensive back Kobe Jones had eight tackles, freshman Koron Smith had six tackles, and junior linebacker David Paredes had four tackles.
Another defensive leader this season has been senior linebacker Jacquez Smith, and junior safety Kway Coverson has made a major impact as well.
On special teams, Prophett has come up big the past two weeks, making field goals and extra points while delivering a text-book perfect onside kick against New Hampstead.
Christian Ceja has done a nice job on kickoffs this season, and freshman punter Parker Shattuck has been terrific all season.
LAGRANGE VS. PERRY
WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
WHAT: Second round of Class AAAA state playoffs
RECORDS: LaGrange (8-3); Perry (7-4)
HOW THEY GOT HERE: LaGrange finished second in Region 2-AAAA and beat New Hampstead 30-26 in the first round of the state playoffs; New Hampstead finished first in Region 6-AAAA and beat Westover 30-14 in the first round of the state playoffs