The LaGrange Panthers are trying to build a winner in Division III football, and they’re starting to use South Effingham High School as a cornerstone.
The Panthers (3-7 in 2012) are set to embark on their second season in the USA South conference, after posting a 3-4 league record a year ago. Of LaGrange’s final four losses, three came by a total of 14 points.
“We had a real good win at Christopher Newport. We lost some games I think we’d like to have back,” said Todd Mooney, about to enter his eighth season at LaGrange. “At the same time, we return a lot of young people who have got great experience now. We’re expecting very good things this year.”
After three one-sided losses to open the 2012 season, LaGrange won three of its next four, including a 20-6 upset of Christopher Newport (Va.) on the road.
Christopher Newport finished in a three-way tie for the conference’s top spot and lost to Mount Union (Ohio) in the first round of the NCAA playoffs. Mooney believes what the Panthers went through last year, including getting two road wins, will help them in 2013.
“I think they understand the experiences they had last year are going to be invaluable this season,” he said. “They’ve worked extremely hard. Our offseason went fantastic. Our spring went fantastic. Like I said, with that much returning experience and the incoming class we’re bringing in, we feel really good.”
Conference defensive player of the year Andre Carter headlines the returning group, and the newcomers include a trio of former South Effingham Mustangs, all-state lineman Stephen Wilson, defensive tackle Robert Scott and quarterback Brandon James.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys coming in and they got a good amount of playing time in the spring,” Carter said. “We had guys graduate, so we’ve got people filling their shoes who feel like are capable of doing their job, also. We’re expecting good things this season.”
LaGrange will return leading rusher and passer Ed Russ and Carter, their leading tackler. In all, seven starters will be back on offense, and four starters return on defense.
There is one open spot in the starting linebacking corps, and sophomore Justin McIntyre could be a candidate to step into that role. McIntyre played in nine games last season and finished with 4.5 tackles for a loss, with three sacks. He also forced three fumbles and was named the conference special teams player of the week.
“He is one heck of a football player,” Mooney said of McIntyre. “He’s done a very nice job and we’re really excited to have him back. He’s 100 percent a team player. He’s a great one.”
Mooney and his players are glad to be in USA South, which has teams from Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee in the league.
Before joining USA South, the Panthers had road trips to Naples, Fla., to play Ave Maria University, Memphis to play Rhodes, Indiana to play Trine College and to Illinois to take on Eureka College.
“Being in the South, there are not a lot of Division III opponents,” Mooney said.
The toughest thing for the program when it started was its independent status, Mooney acknowledged, and the Panthers played as an independent for every year except one from their start in 2006 until last season.
“We had to play a lot of teams that were not Division III-affiliated,” Mooney said. “It took us some places that took us a long way from campus to find games. We needed to find a conference home.
“We were fortunate the school got us into USA South. That’s an affiliation we’ll stick with, and that conference affiliation is going to help us a ton.”
Being in a conference also gives the players a goal.
“It gives you something to play for,” Carter said. “If you win the conference, it’s an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs. You have something to play for each and every week.”
As the only Division III school in Georgia playing football, Mooney and his staff had to educate high school coaches on what they had to offer. Mooney credits his staff for bringing in the Panthers’ classes, which have included five former Mustangs on the current roster, including kicker Fielder Heard.
“The first few years were interesting because there were no other D3s in the state,” Mooney said. “That took a minute to educate the coaches on what that meant. Now we’ve established ourselves and we have people who help us in the recruiting process. Once we bring them to LaGrange, the school sells itself. If you’re going to invest in a private school, this is the place to invest.”
Carter, a 5-foot-10, 230-pound senior, said he wasn’t recruited heavily coming out of Alexander High School.
“There wasn’t a lot of hype around me in the recruiting process because of my size,” he said. “But they took a chance on me. I’m appreciative of that, and I’ll get a quality education.”
Being the state’s only Division III team also gives LaGrange a boost when enticing players who also put education at the forefront, Mooney pointed out.
“It’s huge,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been able to do so well with incoming classes. At this level, you want an institution that believes in winning and is willing to do what it takes financially to give you that opportunity. You also want to couple it with the investment. You’ve got to be able to go to a school that matters, and LaGrange has both those things. That makes it easy to recruit.”