Thornton leads New Hanover past Orange 2-1; Funk homers in Panthers’ 12-2 win over Riverside

Updated: March 31, 2022

Every year in the Hilltop Baseball Invitational, Orange has made it a point to play a team that will create a playoff intensity at the end of March.

New Hanover, a program steeped in tradition with four state championships and seven regional titles, filled the role of a powerhouse simply by showing up on Wednesday night.

The surroundings around Orange High Field made things extra special. For starters, inside the visitors’ dugout was Trot Nixon, a New Hanover alum who was the 1995 North Carolina High School Player of the Year. He went on to become a starter for the Boston Red Sox’s 2004 World Series team, playing a key role in the franchise’s first championship in 86 years. Luke Nixon is now the starting shortstop for New Hanover while his father watches from the dugout as an assistant coach.

There were also scouts from North Carolina, N.C. State, Appalachian State and UNC Wilmington in the stands watching several Division I prospects.

It was the perfect time for Orange to put on, in the opinion of Orange coach Jason Knapp, its best performance of the season. It was just one run shy of being a winning performance.

In a game where all the runs came across in the first inning, New Hanover edged Orange 2-1. Wildcats pitcher Bromley Thornton had the game-winning hit and earned the victory on the mound. He allowed only one run off three hits with five strikeouts

“That was our best game of the year,” Knapp said. “We played hard. It was just a good high school baseball game and we just came up short in the end.”

Thornton lined a double off the very top of the fence in straightaway centerfield to score Connor Marren and Luca Kellog, who both reached off walks in the first inning.

Orange didn’t stay down for long. After David Waitt singled to right field, he advanced to second on a wild pitch. Junior Jackson Berini lined a fastball to right field to bring in Waitt. Berini would advance to second on an error by the right fielder, who overran the ball. But the Panthers couldn’t bring in Berini and spent the rest of the game chasing that second run.

Berini would be the last Panther to reach second base.

Orange pitcher Ryan Hench and Thornton squared off in a pitcher’s dual which had to impress the scouts and fans on hand. Hench struck out five over five innings. The Wildcats didn’t have another batter touch third base until the fifth inning, when designated hitter Sean Smith got aboard on a one-out single. After Marren was hit by a pitch and Tucker Mueller was intentionally walked, Hench got Kellog to ground out to Cross Clayton, who threw to Berini to retire courtesy runner Davis Hinshaw.

Thornton and his defense held the Panthers to four baserunners in the final six innings. Orange second baseman Cross Clayton, who had a stellar defensive game, drew a leadoff walk in the third. Kellog, playing first base, turned an unassisted double play by catching a line drive off the bat of Waitt, then tagged out Clayton to kill the Panther threat.

Catcher Davis Horton started the fourth inning with a walk. Connor Nordan appeared to have a chance of reaching after he grounded deep into the left side of the infield. Nixon used his speed to chase down the ball and get a force out of courtesy runner Ty Walker, which stalled Orange’s momentum. In the fifth inning, Nixon made another gorgeous stop when he threw out Codey Snipes at first.

Smith came into the seventh inning and retired Orange in order for the save.

Orange relievers Joey Pounds and Connor Funk threw shutout innings in the sixth and seventh innings to keep the Wildcat lead at 2-1.

“We’re not happy about losing,” Knapp said. “You have to look at the big picture. Our kids played their tails off. This is the type of environment we’ll see in the state playoffs. Tip your hat to all the kids. There were Division I scouts in the stands tonight and the kids knew it. They embraced the moment and that will pay dividends down the road.”

The Hilltop Invitational, held for the first time since 2018, got going a night early on Tuesday. Orange defeated Riverside 12-2 in five innings at Panther Field. It was also Orange’s senior night. Horton, Funk, Snipes, Cesar Lozano, Jared Weaver and Garrett Compton were all honored before the game during a pregame ceremony.

In a matchup that was the antithesis of the sharp fielding Orange would face 24 hours later, the Pirates and the Panthers combined for seven errors on a sloppy night where temperatures sank to the mid-40s by the first pitch.

Riverside, coached by 2014 Orange High graduate Jordan Toney, jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning after a double by catcher Carson Hervey that hopped over the third base bag. Orange evened things up after Waitt hit a leadoff single. Waitt eventually scored off a throwing error by the catcher. Horton drove in Berini after another error by the second baseman.

Designated hitter Connor Nordan went 1-for-4 with two RBIs. Funk ended the game in the fifth with a three-run homer over the left field wall, his first career dinger.

Sophomore Josiah Gibbs, in his second start, earned the win. Cameron Guentensberger came on in relief in the third inning and threw two-and-two-thirds perfect innings. Before he threw a pitch, Guentensberger picked off courtesy runner Jericho Parks at 2nd base, then retired the all seven batters he faced.

Orange is scheduled to travel to Wilmington to face Ashely on Friday night at 6.

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