May 1, 2014

Granger pushes Mountaineers into postseason

As someone who would clearly rather talk about his team than himself, being the lone 12th-grader on North Murray High School’s baseball team this year could have put Aaron Granger in an uncomfortable situation.

Consider his senior night experience, when Granger stood in a figurative spotlight as the only honoree. For a player who has had to work on becoming comfortable with so many eyes being on him as he pitches or steps into the batter’s box — on the diamond, he’s most at ease when he’s in the field at shortstop — there was no way to avoid being singled out.

On the other hand, being the only senior meant much less time being the center of attention and fewer concerns about the emotional weight of the moment as he looked back on four years of baseball with the Mountaineers.

“It was very fast,” Granger said. “I couldn’t really get sad about anything.”

There have been plenty of happy moments for Granger and the Mount-aineers this season, but perhaps nothing stands out more than the fact that they’re playing state tournament baseball for the first time since the school opened in 2009.

North Murray (11-15) visits Buford (23-2) today for a 4:30 p.m. doubleheader to start their best-of-three series in the opening round of the Class 3A state playoffs. If necessary, a third game will be played at 3 p.m. Saturday.

Buford won the Region 7-3A championship to reach the state playoffs for the fifth straight year, a run that includes winning the Class 2A title in 2011. North Murray is in the bracket despite its overall losing record thanks to winning the games that mattered most — the Mountaineers went 7-7 in Region 5-3A play and scored a timely upset of Sonoraville late in the season to claim the region’s No. 4 seed.

However they got there, the Mountaineers are glad to have their opportunity, and they were glad to get Granger there in his final chance.

“I’m excited for him,” freshman infielder Brody Frazier said. “I told him we’re going to try our best for him.”

Granger, who signed with NCAA Division II program Carson-Newman University (Jefferson City, Tenn.) last fall, has done just that for the Mountaineers over the years, generally with good results. The 5-foot-11, 155-pound right-hander earned the save in the Mountaineers’ 9-4 win over Sonoraville on April 18 that clinched a spot in the playoffs. The Mountaineers rallied from a 4-1 deficit that night, and Granger worked the final 1 1/3 innings in relief of starter Brady Harper.

Sonoraville shared first place in the region with Cartersville and Ringgold at the time — Cartersville ended up winning the 5-3A title ahead of Ringgold and Sonoraville — and the Phoenix had beaten North Murray 4-2 earlier in the season, so Granger had no way of escaping the pressure of the situation. But he thought less about what the game meant and more about how to make sure the Mountaineers won it.

What was on his mind as he headed to the mound that night?

“I’ve got to have confidence in myself and believe I can do it,” he said.

That’s the same advice Granger, a starter since his sophomore season, is giving his teammates as they prepare for the tough test that is Buford.

Junior Cole Vaughn, who pitches and plays right field and first base, said Granger has shown leadership in multiple ways, always setting an example and talking when he needed to. The fact that he has made big contributions on the field has undoubtedly made his advice easier to take.

“He’s been a good (leader),” Vaughn said. “If we’re goofing off or something in practice, he’ll make sure we get back to what we’re supposed to be doing, but he likes to have fun, too. He’s been clutch this year. Against a few teams when we’ve been down in the last few innings, he’s came in and pitched well.”

In addition to his relief work, Granger has been the Mountaineers’ No. 1 starter from the beginning of this season. He enters the playoffs with a 5-4 record and 1.12 ERA in 62 1/3 innings. He has allowed 45 hits and 20 walks while striking out 70.

He’s also hitting .372 with five doubles, a triple and a home run, and 12 walks have helped push his on-base percentage to .468. At shortstop — he’s expected to be a middle infielder in college — he has a .951 fielding percentage.

But for all he has done, some of the things he has said have been just as important. Frazier may not have had to toil as long as Granger did for his first trip to the playoffs, but he can appreciate what that was like — and he can definitely appreciate his senior teammate’s wisdom.

“He’s always helping underclassmen on and off the field,” Frazier said.

It made sense to Granger to do that.

“I just wanted to be a role model to the younger guys,” he said. “I don’t want them to talk down to the younger players as they get older. I just try to pick up guys when they’re down and get them to just stay in the game.”

North Murray coach David Redmond, who is in his first year leading the program, has known Granger a while. Redmond was an assistant the past two seasons to Steve Granger, Aaron’s father and the only head coach North Murray baseball had before this season.

He said the younger Granger, whom he classified as “very humble,” has shown teammates “exactly how the game of baseball should be played” by being just as happy laying down a sacrifice bunt as driving the ball to the gap if it’s what the team needs.

“His dad has taught him the right way and has given that instruction, has given that education to him,” Redmond said. “Aaron realizes his legacy is not just based on what happens his senior year. It’s his alma mater, it’s his school. ... He’s willing to tell a kid, ‘Here’s what you need to work on,’ because it’s been shared with him and he wants the game of baseball to grow and become a really big sport here at North Murray and in Murray County as a whole.”

Redmond said he’s encouraging his players to enjoy the trip to Buford and to remember that moments like this are “never promised,” regardless of talent or work ethic.

Granger could testify to the rareness of such opportunities, and he knows how he wants to approach this one.

“In the past, I was nervous about being on varsity and stuff, getting in there to hit,” Granger said. “Now I’ve learned that you can’t be like that. You’ve got to believe in yourself.”

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