0

Strong pitching, timely hitting lead ELCA to state title

Photo by Brian Paglia / Eagle's Landing Christian Academy's baseball team piles on top of pitcher Cole Ganopulos after clinching the Class A private school championship at home on Saturday.

Photo by Brian Paglia / Eagle's Landing Christian Academy's baseball team piles on top of pitcher Cole Ganopulos after clinching the Class A private school championship at home on Saturday.

photo

Photo by Brian Paglia / ELCA centerfielder Dazmon Cameron connects for a solo home run in Game 1 of the Class A private school finals against Mt. Paran on Saturday.

photo

Photo by Brian Paglia / ELCA junior Dalton Etheridge delivers a pitch in Game 1 of the Class A private school championship series against Mt. Paran on Saturday.

photo

Photo by Brian Paglia / ELCA rightfielder Jacob Heyward celebrates after hitting a run-scoring double in Game 1 of the Class A private school championship series against Mt. Paran on Saturday.

photo

Photo by Brian Paglia / ELCA baseball coach Doug Campbell holds the Class A private school championship trophy after the Chargers swept Mt. Paran on Saturday.

McDONOUGH — Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy followed the protocol to perfection. Players waited in the dugout with one leg over the rail. School administrators coordinated supervision of the seemingly inevitable celebration over walkie talkies. Families converged on the dugout as the feeling of finality built.

Then the moment came. Chargers pitcher Cole Ganopulos fielded the weak grounder by Mt. Paran’s Taylor Trammel, threw to first baseman Matthew Hammers for the final out and waited for the dog pile. Next to the pitcher’s mound, Ganopulos was covered in teammates and ELCA students who rushed the field after jumping over the outfield fence.

Turned out it was just the rehearsal.

Trammel’s grounder was foul.

“Everyone piled on. It was hilarious,” Chargers junior pitcher and shortstop Dalton Etheridge said. “Then someone comes over and says, ‘It’s foul.’ I was like, ‘Are you serious?’”

After everyone took their places, ELCA nailed the second take.

This time, Ganopulos struck out Trammel looking to end a 4-1 victory over the Eagles in Game 2 and clinch the Class A private school championship at home on Saturday.

The script was the same — teammates on top of Ganopulos, classmates on top of the team and celebration everywhere.

“Being able to say we dog-piled twice is amazing,” ELCA senior infielder D.J. Curl said. “There was still that feeling in the air. The second time was even better.”

The same could be said about this championship run. ELCA (30-3) won its first Class A baseball title in 2006. Postseasons since for the Chargers were a mix of early-round flame-outs or excruciating near-misses.

Last season was one of the former. The Chargers felt capable of playing for a championship but instead lost to George Walton Academy in the quarterfinals. With virtually the entire team back, ELCA felt it finally had the requisite experience to match its talent.

“It was hard for us juniors then who hadn’t been deep in the playoffs,” ELCA senior rightfielder Jacob Heyward said. “We had to get that experience and know we had the team to do it.”

Saturday was certainly a showcase for ELCA’s veterans. Heyward’s scoreboard-denting home run in the fourth inning of Game 2 tied it at 1-1. Chargers senior catcher Cameron Ragsdale followed three batters later with an RBI double to give ELCA a 2-1 lead.

Curl followed an inning later with a two-run blast. Suddenly, it was 4-1, Chargers.

“That’s all a testament to our coaches,” Curl said. “They came in and adjusted something in my swing. They told me I’d see one fastball and to jump on it. I’m just glad I could help my team.”

Yet, ELCA needed just as much from some unlikely sources.

Perhaps the surprise of the season was the emergence of Etheridge as the team ace. As a junior, he was a full-time shortstop and part-time pitcher but hardly the inevitable choice to replace Kevin Martin, last season’s Henry Daily Herald Pitcher of the Year.

Though he struggled with his control in spots — like loading the bases in the first inning by walking one and plunking two other Eagles — Etheridge’s stuff was too much for Mt. Paran (28-5). He got out of that first-inning jam unscathed and went on to allow just one run on five hits while striking out 10 in seven innings.

“I felt good,” Etheridge said. “My fastball was pretty much the winner out there. Slider, too. It was working. I lost control for a few pitches, but I mostly felt good out there.”

Perhaps the surprise of the finals was Ganopulos. As a freshman, he spent the first half of the season on junior varsity. When ELCA coach Doug Campbell called him up near the season’s mid-point, Ganopulos made one spot start but was hardly a candidate to be in a position to clinch a state championship.

No matter. Campbell liked that Ganopulos’ jerky side-arm delivery would give Mt. Paran a different look from Etheridge’s conventional power-pitching approach. Campbell also knew ELCA had Joshua Smith ready to pitch in Game 3 if necessary.

“I thought I’d rather not put it all on [Ganopulos] shoulders,” Campbell said. “We were very confident. We figured this crooked curveball would mess them up, and it did.”

Considering the stage and his experience, Ganopulos’ performance was brilliant. He worked around five hits and three walks to allow just one earned run while striking out four in seven innings.

“It was probably one of the best things this year, especially being a freshman,” Ganopulos said. “Before, I was pretty nervous. But I knew I had a good defense behind me. I just had to throw the ball and do what I always do.”

“So impressed,” Curl said. “I’ve seen so much maturity in him since the first day of practice. We were just tagging him then. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.”

ELCA’s future will be surrounded by similar question marks as it was this season.

Like Etheridge replacing Martin, the Chargers will have to find new leadership to replace Curl and Heyward.

Like returning several starters and contributors this season, ELCA will have the likes of Etheridge, Dazmon Cameron, Andrew Gomez, Matthew Hammers and others back next season to fuel pre-season expectations.

For now, they can relish in a state championship.

“They were very confident in their ability to hit the ball,” Campbell said, “knowing there was not a pitcher who could shut them down. ... These guys did not have a bad day all playoffs.”