As soon as practice concluded, Alex Milazzo and Collier Cranford loaded up and made the nearly 22-mile drive from the Zachary High School baseball field to Alex Box Stadium.
It didn’t matter what time the LSU game started, or even if there was a game. They’d drive to Baton Rouge just to watch a Tigers’ practice or to talk with LSU recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain.
They grew up as not just teammates but friends with the same goal, one that they have realized together: playing for the six-time national champion Tigers in arguably one of the nation’s best gameday atmospheres.
The day Milazzo and Cranford are both in the same starting lineup for LSU may not be far off. In the season opening series against Indiana over the weekend, Milazzo started game two and contributed a double and three RBI while Cranford saw action late in game three.
“It’s really awesome to be able to play with a guy you grew up with,” Milazzo said.
“Alex was one of my best friends growing up,” Cranford said.
“We went to same schools all the way up and in high school played all four years together,” Milazzo said.
“He’s my roommate now,” Cranford said.
“It’s a dream come true,” Milazzo said.
“It’s amazing,” Cranford said.
At Zachary, the two were pillars of a powerhouse baseball program that won four straight District 4-5A Championships and went 116-38 overall.
It’s an enviable record in a district where nearly every single player on last year’s all-district team committed to a major university in either baseball (seven players) and and football (two quarterbacks.) Three more baseball players committed to junior college powerhouse LSU-Eunice.
Milazzo split district MVP honors with the Gatorade Louisiana Player of the Year and current LSU teammate and fellow freshman Cade Doughty of Denham Springs.
“5A baseball in Louisiana has helped a lot of kids be ready for the next level,” Zachary coach Jacob Fisher said. “The competition from players like Doughty and Preston Faulkner, Tommy Biggs at West Monroe who’s at LSU now as well, it’s helped to prepare these kids.”
It certainly prepared Milazzo and Cranford, though both took separate paths, even as teammates, to wear an LSU uniform.
Milazzo started every game of his four-year high school career, from his debut as a freshman in the Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park until the Broncos were eliminated the playoffs last May in his last game as a senior.
From the first pitch, even in a major league ballpark, it was obvious that Milazzo was a special talent behind the plate and his defense would translate to the next level.
“Shoot, when he came in with us as a freshman, that’s when we figured out he was an elite catcher,” Fisher said. “Once we saw his arm, his receiving ability, and his blocking ability, we knew that he was a next level catcher at the college level and at the professional level.”
By the time he was a senior, Milazzo had the fastest throwing time in the nation at 1.74 seconds. LSU coach Paul Mainieri said Milazzo’s throwing arm is why he’ll see significant playing time out of the gate behind starter Saul Garza.
“I love Alex Milazzo,” Mainieri said. “I love his passion, I love his grit, his enthusiasm, his toughness, and obviously I love his throwing arm. He’s working on the other aspects of his defense, his receiving, his blocking.”
Mainieri was pleasantly surprised by Milazzo in fall practice.
“Usually when freshman come in the first fall, they struggle a lot,” Mainieri said. “Alex did not. He had one of the best falls of anybody. He played really well, even with the bat, which I didn’t expect much. I’d just be happy if he was a really good defensive catcher. I thought he swung the bat a lot better than I really anticipated.”
Milazzo’s toughness is best exemplified by his extensive dental records.
During a game against Dutchtown his sophomore year, he got hit in the mouth by a pitch. His entire Maxilla bone, compromising essentially the middle of his face, was shattered. He had several reconstructive surgeries that included implanting an inch of bone fragment to replace the crushed portion, false teeth implants, braces, and a mouth completely fully of stitches.
Yet two games later, he was back behind the plate.
“He was back in two weeks and they told me we would be without him for almost a month,” Fisher said. “He was back in two weeks and had a face guard on and we never checked up from there. Alex is one of the toughest players, if not the toughest player I have ever coached.”
Ask Milazzo about taking a pitch in the face and he answers as nonchalantly as he was asked what he ate for breakfast.
“It’s kind of whatever, you know,” Milazzo said. “I just kind of got used to it. I just gotta kind of deal with it.
“It kind just went right over my head and I kept on playing. I just strapped the cleats on and got back in there.”
Cranford had road to LSU a bit longer than Milazzo.
While Milazzo established himself as a freshman, Cranford wasn’t really on anybody’s radar, including the Zachary coaches. But during his sophomore year, he got a chance when the senior starting in front of him went down with an injury.
Cranford stepped in and never looked back.
“Whenever that opportunity came, he took it and ran with it,” Fisher said. “He didn’t just settle to start for varsity. He continued to work harder and harder. He took all the negative things coaches were saying about him as far as he couldn’t do this or that at the next level.”
The hard work paid off Cranford’s junior year where he hit .394 with 13 doubles, five triples, five home runs, 37 RBI, and 18 stolen bases.
His breakout season was enough to land him an offer from LSU. He committed after the season, joining teammate Milazzo in becoming future Tigers.
He was on top of the world, but it was ultimately fleeting.
Five games into his senior season he went down with an injury to his throwing arm. He continued to DH while his arm was being evaluated, but when it was decided that Tommy John surgery was necessary, he was shut down for the rest of the season just before district play began.
“It was frustrating,” Cranford said. “Very frustrating.”
Frustrating as it may have been, it wasn’t the end of his tenure at Zachary. Cranford lost the ability to contribute on the field but gained the ability to contribute from the dugout.
He became more involved in the team and began communicating closer with the coaches. He helped plan out strategy and learned how to view the game from a different lens.
“When he went down with the injury, it hurt him a lot,” Fisher said. “But he was the type of kid that was able to come into the coach’s office and go over game plans. He was part of the game planning with us. He became a coach his senior year. He took it as a different prospective and I think it taught him a lot more about the game…it improved his mind mentally. Now he can see what we see as the game develops and I think that is going to help him moving forward.”
LSU honored Cranford’s commitment and despite not being able to throw during fall practice, Cranford competed with Hal Hughes for the open position at shortstop during preseason practice as a true freshman. Even if he doesn’t start, he’s sure to see playing time early on in his career in purple and gold.
But for now, Cranford is just content to be back doing what he loves and contributing to his new team.
“It felt amazing,” Cranford said. “It felt great just to be back doing what I used to do.”