Overpowered by Funk–Orange baseball defeats Terry Sanford 8-5 in 3A State Playoffs

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Updated: May 13, 2022

At the conclusion of the film Wall Street, a wise character named Lou Mannheim tells Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen: “A man looks into the abyss, finds nothing staring back at him. At that moment, a man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”

Twice this week, the Orange baseball team had moments where their season hung precariously by a thread. It would be easy to say that Orange found its character when they trailed Cedar Ridge 2-1 going into the bottom of the seventh inning on Tuesday night. Or during the sixth inning of Thursday’s game with Terry Sanford, when it appeared the Bulldogs were set to take its first lead of the game.

The truth is Orange has spent its season building its character. Starting with its season-opening win over Northern Durham on March 1, to losing a four-run lead late against Middle Creek to a forgettable day against Perquimans in Wilson at midseason. Losses against New Hanover and Ashley all paved the way for several defining moments that paid off handsomely by senior Conner Funk on Thursday night.

Funk knocked in the game-winning run in the sixth inning, then completed his first win of the season by striking out Brady Gore for the final out to lead Orange past Terry Sanford 8-5 in the 2nd round of the NCHSAA 3A State Playoffs in Hillsborough. The Panthers advanced to face J.H. Rose, the defending 3A State Champions, on Tuesday night in Greenville.

It’s the first time that Orange (18-8) advanced to the Round of 16 in the state playoffs since 2017.

Terry Sanford, the champions of the 4A/3A All-American Conference, ends the year 19-7.

“Conner comes through in all the crucial situations,” said Orange coach Jason Knapp. “Just look throughout his career the last two years. Every crucial play, he puts his stamp on it.”

Funk, who started the game at second base, was called in to pitch by Knapp with one out in the sixth inning–a time when the Bulldogs had a tidal wave of momentum. They had just tied the game after catcher Andrew Kittinger sprayed a fastball to the right field line that landed two feet fair in front of a sprinting David Waitt. Nathan Townsend scored to even the game 5-5 after the throw to the plate went over catcher Davis Horton’s head, which allowed Gehrig Hodges to advance to 3rd base and Kittinger to second with one out.

Inheriting two runners in scoring position, Funk calmly threw to Nathan Brown, who sent a soft pop-up back to the mound. After Funk made the catch, he struck out Alex Smith to end the inning and keep the score tied 5-5.

“Those were the biggest outs of our season,” Knapp said of Funk’s clutch pitching. “That kept the score tied and it gave us a chance to go ahead. No better guy I’d rather have the ball in that situation than him”

Jackson Berini walked to start the bottom of the sixth, which turned out to be the final batter for Brown, the Bulldogs’ starter. After Waitt bunted Berini to second, Ryan Hench sent another fly ball to right field that dropped in for a single. With Berini at third, Funk bopped a Baltimore chop over the head of third baseman Cameron Seagroves and into left field to score the game-winning run. Sophomore Cameron Gunetensberger lined a single up to the middle to bring in Hench and increase Orange’s lead to 7-5. Connor Nordan popped up a fly ball to foul ground in right field. Instead of letting it drop foul, Gore opted to catch it, which allowed Funk to score on a headlong, joyous dive to home plate for another insurance run as Funk celebrated with a joyous group of Orange reserves.

On a unseasonably cool mid-May night with overcast skies and occasional soft rain, the play was often just as peculiar as the weather. There were no less than three Baltimore chop base hits, including Funk’s game-winning RBI.

“It was probably the field maintenance guy’s fault,” joked Knapp, who obsesses over Orange’s field like Michael Myers does Haddonfield, Illinois. “The ball was hitting the front lip of the infield and it got some elevation.”

There were several pop fly balls to right field that ordinarily would have been comfortably caught that instead dropped harmlessly to the ground.

Orange bolted out to a 4-0 lead after two innings. After Berini led off the first with a single, Ryan Hench hit his team-leading fifth home run of the season over the infamous Panther porch in left field. In the second, Nordan drew a leadoff walk. Horton reached on an error at second base. With one out, Orange third baseman Neo Best sent the first Baltmore Chop of the night to the left side of a drawn-in infield, where it floated over the head of shortstop Brent Smith. Nordan scored to increase Orange’s lead to 3-0. With two out, Waitt grounded a single into left field to bring in Elijah Santos, a courtesy runner for Horton.

Clayton retired the first seven Bulldogs in order on just 17 pitches. Alex Smith reached on a single to right field in the third inning. With two outs, Brent Smith drew a key walk, which led to Seagroves sending a three-run homer to left field to cut Orange’s lead to 4-3.

“We weren’t shaken after that,” Knapp said. “We have dealt with adversity all season long. We’re seasoned for tough guys. Nothing shakes these guys confidence because that’s why we play these games in the regular season. To put ourselves in a position to win. When they hit that three-run bomb, we weren’t shaken one bit.”

Funk reached second to lead off the bottom of the third with another fly ball to right field somehow dropped between three Bulldogs. After Nordan walked, Horton singled to right-centerfield, but Funk was held at third. With the bases loaded, Codey Snipes was hit by a pitch, bringing in Funk.

Townsend sent the first pitch of the fourth inning down the left field line, where he landed fair by five feet across from the fair pole. Once again, Orange’s lead was cut to one run at 5-4.

Clayton, who earned the win in Tuesday’s win over Cedar Ridge after throwing two innings of relief, was going for his team-leading eighth win of the year. He came away with a no-decision in five-and-one-thirds innings.

J.H. Rose, the #1 seed in the 3A East Region, defeated Southern Lee 10-0 in five innings on Thursday.

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