Though the recent past indicates otherwise, the Orange Panthers don’t have the richest football tradition.
They went 15 years without a winning season from 1993-2007. Their 2008 playoff birth was the first in 17 years.
Before the dark era of Panther football, some rich names played under a series of head coaches that varied in quality.
Alvis Whitted, Class of 1993, was a wide receiver and kick returner. While he had numerous shining moments on the gridiron and track, unquestionably his most infamous came on a rainy Monday night at Chapel Hill High in 1992. With Orange trailing 10-3 in the fourth quarter, Whitted handled a reverse on a kickoff return that caught CHHS totally off guard. With speed that would earn him state championships in the 100 and 200 meters, no Tiger could stop Alvis.
But the rain could.
Whitted slipped and fell at the 1-yard line.
Right on cue, quarterback Mark Pounds fumbled a snap on the subsequent play that the Tigers recovered. Ultimately, the CHHS won and went to the playoffs. It was the first of 17 straight years that the Panthers would miss the postseason.
After a career at N.C. State playing under Mike O’Cain, Whitted was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1997. Six years later, his career peaked, winning an AFC Championship with the Oakland Raiders. He even played in Super Bowl XXXVII, falling to Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Whitted’s classmate, Damon Scott, was a three-year varsity starter at OHS. He was the tailback for Orange’s only playoff victory of the 90s, a win at Greenville Rose in 1991. After leaving Hillsborough, he became an FCS All-American at Appalachian State. He’s the 2nd leading rusher in school history and a member of the university’s 75th anniversary team.
Of course, the natural lineage between Orange High and Appalachian State is current Mountaineer head coach Scott Satterfield, who led a (brief) revival of Panther football in 1990. The previous three Orange teams won a combined eight games. It likely would have been more if Satterfield hadn’t suffered a season-ending torn ACL injury against Eastern Alamance, the first game of his junior year.
In 1990, the combination of Satterfield, Scott and tight end Kevin Wright paced the Panthers to a 7-3 record, good enough for a three-way tie for 2nd in the PAC-6 conference behind Northern Durham. That season, the PAC-6 had only two playoff slots allotted, and the Panthers stayed home from the playoffs after losing a draw to Northern Vance (Chapel Hill came up with a short straw, as well).
Before Satterfield, Scott and Whitted, there was defensive lineman J.R. Bolden, class of 1988. He immediately grabbed the attention of UNC Head Coach Mack Brown, who had just transplanted himself in Chapel Hill in 1988 after going 6-6 in Tulane. Bolden would play in the Shrine Bowl. He endured the jokes and jeers (often from UNC’s own fan base) of consecutive 1-10 teams, the dog days of Brown’s tenure. His senior year culminated in a Peach Bowl victory over Mississippi State.
Satterfield. Scott. Whitted. Bolden.
There was also Walter Boyd, Class of 1988 who signed with Lou Holtz and Notre Dame. And Marc Latta, a former OHS school class president who would win his own Peach Bowl at N.C. State.
And none of them won a conference championship.
They were victims of bad timing—and Ken Browning.
Indeed, Orange, just like the usual array of challengers to throne, were mired in the dominance of the Northern Knights, who won or shared every PAC-6 Championship from 1984-2001. Browning was the head coach for ten of them, leaving Northern to become an assistant at UNC after winning the 1993 4-A state championship.
Which is why tonight is so important for the Panthers.
After Orange’s 41-19 victory over Chapel Hill last week, Panther coaches and personnel weren’t focused on the result. Athletic Director Ernie Price and head coach Pat Moser got word from a trainer of a final score from Durham: Northwood 28, Southern Durham 26.
How stunning was that development? It was the Spartans’ first loss as a 3-A team in Big 8 Conference regular season play. A 22-game conference winning streak was over. It was Southern’s first conference loss since September 14, 2012, when they fell to Hillside 18-13 in the 4-A PAC-6. The last time Southern lost a conference game to anyone except Hillside was 2008 (another rainy night triumph for Chapel Hill, 10-0).
The attitude on the Orange sideline was a mixture of joy and concern. The Panthers suddenly needed one win over a last-place Oxford Webb team to win a share of the Big 8 Conference championship.
But what about the potential three-way tie for first in the Big 8? It seems most likely that Northwood, Southern and Orange will share the title.
Orange opened the Big 8 with a home loss to the Spartans. They followed with five straight wins, most importantly a soggy 14-0 win at Northwood the week after the Southern loss. Before last week, Orange seemed resigned to its fourth straight runner-up finish. It may not bring a conference championship, but at least the Panthers would likely earn a home game for the 1st round of the state playoffs.
Northwood’s upset changed all that. A three-way tie for first would require another drawing next Friday night (which is Orange’s bye week). A top six seed in the playoffs? Two potential home playoff games? That’s on the table. So is a bottom six seed that could lead to an opening round road game.
Draw the number 3 and the Panthers may not see Auman Stadium again until next September against Riverside.
For now, all of that is hypothetical. Tonight, Orange faces Oxford Webb in Granville County. Forget that the Warriors have lost five straight and have given up 133 points in its last four games. The bottom line is Orange can become a conference champion for the first time in 2008, and only the third time since 1978.
The playoffs can wait. To earn something that so many Orange greats never achieved is enough to play for.