The East Chapel Hill Wildcats were the deserving winners against Orange in the 3A/2A/1A State Quarterfinals at Auman Stadium.

But that’s only part of the story from Monday night.

There’s the atmosphere that surrounded it. Even with attendance restrictions, there was a strong turnout at Auman Stadium to see if the highest achieving Orange lacrosse team in history could extend their run a few days later. Perhaps even find a way to carry it all the way to this weekend in Raleigh. Listeners from Texas, Florida, and western North Carolina tuned in to for the play-by-play call.

There was the mental toughness of an Orange team that fell behind foul goals in the third quarter and refused to concede. It wasn’t a once in a lifetime moment for this Panthers’ team because they expect success, now and later, which is precisely the point. To compete against one of the blue bloods of North Carolina high school lacrosse? Orange has transcended that now. They’re nearly beating them.

That’s where Chandler Zirkle, at the end of his fourth season, has taken Orange lacrosse. On Monday night, it ironically came against the school where his father, Franklin, won two North Carolina Lacrosse Association state championships in 2004 and 2006. Chandler himself played at East and also reached the 2011 State Championship game.

East’s offensive firepower of Alec Levy and Samuel Reece sparked a 6-0 run late in the third quarter to send the Wildcats past Orange 15-12 on Monday night at Auman Stadium. East Captain Alec Levy finished with five goals and two assists, while junior Samuel Reece added four goals and two assists as the Wildcats reached the Eastern Regional Championship game for the second time in four years.

Orange’s Ryan Merrill, in his final game, scored four goals and two assists. Senior Duncan Grant and freshman Connor Kruse also had two goals for Orange, who end the year 8-4.

The Wildcats will travel to Hampstead to face Topsail for the Eastern Regional Championship Wednesday night.

“It’s actually fun going against a team you know is going to coach well,” Zirkle said. “They threw a short stick zone at us early, which I really liked. It’s cool to make those adjustments. They’re a well coached team that deserved to win. They outplayed us tonight.”

With 4:02 remaining in the 3rd quarter, Orange led 11-9 after Ryan Merrill snuck a low shot past East goalkeeper August Walls. With the partisan Orange crowd providing applauding after every goal, for and against, the Panthers appeared to add momentum when goalkeeper Chase Hawkins stopped a shot by Seiji Stanford late in the third quarter.

Then Levy made the play of the game. He intercepted the subsequent outlet pass out of midair, went behind the net, ran out in front as he absorbed two checks and fired the ball into the upper right corner of the net. It was his fifth goal, but it drained Orange of any juice for the remainder the night.

“We went back and made the same dumb mistakes that we shouldn’t make,” Zirkle said. “We’ve tried to fix that in practice, and as a whole, we’ve done a good job in adjusting. But we made too many bad turnovers tonight.”

East sophomore Harrison Yost evened the game just one minute later at 11-11. Nicholas Castro, who scored seven goals against Orange in the first meeting between the two teams on February 10, notched his first goal with under a minute remaining in the third to vault East into the lead at 12-11.

“We made too many mistakes in transition this year,” Zirkle said. “We tried to keep them out of transition tonight and again I think we gave them too many transition goals. That’s where they’re great. You can’t let them have too many 3-on-2 opportunities when they have two All-American attackmen.”

Not even a two-minute illegal stick penalty to start the fourth quarter could stop the Wildcats. East calmly killed it off without allowing an Orange shot. Stanford added two more goals in the fourth quarter, while Castro scored another to boost the Wildcat lead to 15-11.

Orange sophomore Jake Wimsatt dominated at the face-off circle for the first three quarters, which led to lengthy possessions against the transition-minded Wildcats. Orange trailed 7-3 with 9:51 remaining in the first half, but Wimsatt’s low shot past Walls triggered a 5-2 Panther run to finish the first half. After an offside penalty against Stanford, freshman Connor Kruse notched a Man-up goal off an assist from Ryan Merrill to cut East’s lead to 7-6. Levy followed with consecutive goals, but Orange ended the first half with a strike from Merrill with 1:03 remaining. Then Kruse, with only five second left following a restart, found Caleb Davis, who whipped a shot into the net just as the half ended to propel Orange into the locker room with momentum down 9-8.

Kruse tied the game off an assist from Cy Horner to open the third quarter. In the process, East was kept off the scoreboard for over eleven minutes Wimsatt gave Orange the lead off a feed from Merrill with 7:31 remaining, followed by Merrill’s goal before East’s run.

There were no tears for an Orange team that only experienced a fraction of a season that they’re used to. There were memories of past practices and Zirkle’s early days as a head coach where he tried to instill discipline only to turn into unintentional comedy. And lots and lots of pictures.

“We’ve got a cool program,” Zirkle said. “I love having multiple sport athletes, but when you have ten of eleven football players who decided to play lacrosse this year because it’s more fun…I actually pushed kids to play football this year, but they wanted to be part of this. It’s cool to have kids want to be here.”

As he walked out of Auman Stadium for the final time in 2021, Zirkle was smiling. Not just about the season that has ended, but for the future, as well.

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