By Kevin Eckleberry
He had a plan.
When David Kelton inherited the head-coaching position for the LaGrange College baseball team before the 2014 season, he had a vision, a picture of what he thought the program could be.
That vision has been realized.
It has been an extraordinary season for the Panthers, and the man who has put together the blueprint for the success is Kelton, the Troup High graduate who played professional baseball for 10 years before turning to coaching.
In Year 3 of Kelton’s tenure as head coach at LaGrange College, the Panthers went 30-13, setting the stage for what everyone associated with the program hoped would be a memorable 2017 season.
The Panthers finished the regular season with a 38-4 record, and as they waited to find out where they’d be going for the NCAA tournament, they rose to the top of both major Division III polls.
Kelton took over the program in 2013 following the departure of long-time coach Kevin Howard, who is now at Reinhardt.
The Panthers had losing records in Kelton’s first two seasons as head coach, but he remained patient and continued to bring in the types of players he felt fit best with what he was trying to accomplish.
“It took a little bit to get it going,” Kelton said. “We had to get the guys in that were going to play our style of baseball, and do the things we wanted done.”
The talent is there.
A team doesn’t go 38-4 without having highly-skilled players, but Kelton said this group’s success is about more than just the ability to drive the ball into the gap, or freeze a batter’s knees on an 0-2 off-speed pitch.
“It’s a group of guys that have really bonded, and play unselfish baseball,” Kelton said. “They play real fundamental, team baseball, and they play so well together. They push each other, and hold each other accountable.”
The Panthers’ success has made Cleaveland Field in Williamson Stadium the place to be.
The Panthers hosted the USA South tournament, and it was a full house for the championship game against the Piedmont Lions on April 15.
With senior Josh Smith pitching 8 1/3 shutout innings, LaGrange College won 6-0 to secure the championship and set off a well-deserved celebration.
The moment was in stark contrast to a year ago when LaGrange College lost to Piedmont in the tournament semifinals.
It was a disappointing ending to an otherwise special season.
“There’s nothing better,” said senior Casey Bell, the USA South player of the year. “Last year hurt big time, and we brought back basically everybody. There’s too many seniors on this team. We weren’t going to let that happen again. It’s on our field, it’s our time, and we knew nothing was going to stop us.”
Smith, the man who Kelton tasked with pitching the championship game, called it an “awesome opportunity” to be on the mound for a moment of that magnitude.
Smith said “I knew that I was going to do everything I could to get my family a championship. We’ve been working hard for the two years that I’ve been here. Coach brought us in, and we all sat down and said we wanted this. We got close last year, and we came up a little short. This year, we knew we had the team, and we worked our butts off all season to do it.”
Smith credited Kelton, who was an assistant coach at LaGrange College before ascending to the head position, with putting this team together.
“Every time we’ve got down, someone else picks us up,” Smith said. “That’s how it is. It’s a family atmosphere on this team, and it starts with coach Kelton. Coach Kelton has done a great job with us, and he’s a fantastic coach.”
As the Panthers reveled in their success following the championship-clinching victory, no one was happier for them than Kelton, who has always believed he had the men on his roster capable of achieving this level of success.
“Creating that culture of guys being unselfish, playing team baseball, it’s gotten better every year,” Kelton said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to come out and play together, and this team has done that. It’s just been phenomenal. The consistency they’ve played with this year is unreal. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”