The old adage is to avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.

Orange Coach Chandler Zirkle wasn’t afraid to speak up in a haywire final five minutes against Northwood at Auman Stadium, and it helped put the Panthers in the 3A/2A/1A State Quarterfinals for the first time in the 13-year history of the program.

Just nine days removed from Northwood thrashing Orange 17-6 in Pittsboro, the Panthers edged out a 10-9 victory over the Chargers in a fever-pitched atmosphere at Auman Stadium on Wednesday night. Orange’s Ryan Merrill finished with three goals and two assists. Merrill’s classmate, Caleb Davis, also had a hat trick and two assists as Orange improved to 8-3.

The Panthers will host East Chapel Hill, where Zirkle once played, in Hillsborough on Monday night.

Freshman Connor Kruse, who played at Stanford Middle School at this time last year, notched the game-winning goal when he fired the ball between the legs of Northwood’s goalkeeper with 5:27 remaining. Cy Horner assisted on Kruse’s only goal of the game.

But there was plenty that happened afterwards.

On two separate occasions, Northwood had potential game-tying goals waved off. The most noteworthy came with 4:50 remaining when Chargers midfielder Will Smith was deep in Northwood’s offensive zone and had the ball knocked away by defenseman Griffin Metheny. Smith ran out of his offensive end to scoop the ground ball and appeared to carry the ball over the midfield line, which would have resulted in an over-and-back call (similar to basketball). The officials let the play continue and Smith tallied the game-tying goal with 4:03 left.

Or so it appeared.

The referees, two of whom were college officials, gathered together and decided it was a correctable error, ruling that Smith had committed the over-and-back violation. The goal was nullified and 47 seconds was placed back on the clock. In the midst of the discussion, Northwood coach Randy Cox was called for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“They established themselves in the box,” Zirkle said. “The officials caught it and let the players play on, which is the right thing to do. They went down and scored, but the officials caught the mistake.”

Northwood got the ball back with 2:03 remaining and again appeared to tie the game when Ben Rogers fired the ball into the right corner of the net. Zirkle challenged that Rogers had an illegal stick. The officials put a ball in Rogers stick and it failed to come out while the head of the stick was parallel. Again, the game-tying goal was nullified and Rogers was penalized for two minutes, sending several furious Charger fans rushing towards the front gate of the visitor’s section to scream at the officials. Orange ran out the clock for the most important win in school history.

The game turned on an illegal stick penalty against Northwood midway through the fourth quarter. Northwood scored consecutive goals from Smith and Terry Moore to take a 9-8 lead, then called timeout. Once Orange went on the man-up, sophomore Jake Wimsatt whistled home the game-tying goal within seconds off a pass from Merrill. Kruse later scored the game-winner.

After losing by eleven goals to Northwood the week before, Zirkle didn’t have to work hard to coach amnesia for such a huge game.

“It was our worst game of the year,” Zirkle said. “By no means did we do everything we wanted to do tonight. We brought into our game plan and we’re getting as good as we can at this time.”

Merrill scored just 26 seconds into the game off an assist from Davis to spark a first quarter that featured four ties and two lead changes. Northwood’s Jake Mann, who has signed to play football at Oklahoma, scored all four of the Chargers’ goals in the first quarter, including one off an assist from Taylor Leverage to even the game 4-4 going into the second quarter.

Mann finished with five goals in his final lacrosse game with the Chargers.

Orange’s defense kept Northwood scoreless for the first 7:12 of the second quarter. Panther sophomore Joe Cady posted two goals to vault Orange into a 6-4 lead. Cady’s first was assisted by Merrill, the second by Davis. Laberge scored for Northwood with 4:48 remaining to cut Orange’s lead to 6-5 at halftime.

Davis registered his third goal off an assist from Jake Wimsatt to open the second half and push Orange ahead 7-5. Northwood’s Ben Rogers and Mann scored to even the game, but Merrill whipped a shot past Northwood goalkeeper Hunter Klingel to put Orange back into the lead going into the fourth quarter.

Orange goalkeeper Chase Hawkins, who made several vital saves during the second half, emerged to become an unlikely hero. After playing in net as a sophomore for Orange’s playoff win over Northside-Jacksonville in 2019, Hawkins appeared to have hung up his lacrosse jersey after the 2020 season was abandoned because of the pandemic. However, the Panthers have spent this season playing without its top two goalkeepers, who are both with the football team. Hawkins, who has been known to drive a tractor to school, was summoned out of retirement by Zirkle earlier this month and started only his second game of the year on Wednesday night.

He wound up earning the win on a night no Orange fan will soon forget.

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