Throughout this shortened season, the Orange softball coach staff has tried to arrange a matchup against a team from the Mid-Piedmont Conference.
Now, they’ll get it. Just not against the one they thought.
Orange will face Southwestern Randolph in the opening round of the 3A State Playoffs on Monday night at 6PM in Hillsborough. The winner will face the victor of Southern Nash vs. Clayton, each of whom won their respective conferences.
The Lady Panthers, who became the first softball team in the history of the school to finish undefeated in the regular season after beating Northern Durham 12-0 on Thursday, are the #2 overall seed in the East. It’s the ninth straight time that Orange has made the 3A State Playoffs (not counting last year’s canceled tournament because of the COVID-19 pandemic).
Southwestern Randolph (8-4) tied for the Mid-Piedmont Conference Championship with Southern Alamance. The Cougars opened the season with a 5-4 win over the Patriots on March 27, which turned out to be the first of three meetings. Southern Alamance took the rematch 15-0 on April 8 in Graham. On Thursday night, they met again in a special one-game playoff to determine the #1 seed from the Mid-Piedmont in Asheboro, which the Patriots captured 5-0.
Orange didn’t play a nonconference game this year, despite the best efforts of head coach Johnny Barefoot. In early April, Barefoot had reached an agreement with Southern Alamance officials to play a game against the Patriots in Graham, which was scheduled for this past week. But it was delayed twice and ultimately canceled, due in part to the Patriot’s special playoff game against Southwestern Randolph.
Orange is one of five 3A teams to finish the regular season undefeated. The others are D.H. Conley, Piedmont, West Brunswick and Crest.
Usually a 64-team tournament, this year’s 3A State Championship was scaled back to 32 teams because of the pandemic, like almost all other team sports. Among the 16 teams in the East Region, the only other Big 8 Conference squad to make the field was Northern Durham. The Knights earned a #11 seed and will travel to Morehead City to face West Carteret, who captured the Coastal Conference championship for the third year in a row.
For the first time since 2017, Cedar Ridge will miss the playoffs. With a 9-5 overall record, the Red Wolves were denied one of the four wildcard spots from the Eastern Region. Cedar Ridge ended the season with four straight wins, ending with a doubleheader sweep of Southern Durham on Friday night at Red Wolves Softball Stadium. Cedar Ridge came the closest to beating Orange in the regular season after they scored seven runs in the seventh inning to send the game to extra innings. Orange won 11-9 in nine innings.
The size of the field wasn’t the only change created by the pandemic. The NCHSAA relied on a predetermined draw, rather than seeding from MaxPreps, to finalize the bracket. Orange, which ended the regular season ranked #3 in the state by MaxPreps among 3A teams, benefited greatly from this method. If they advance far enough, the Lady Panthers are guaranteed home games through the first three rounds.
With a reduced field, the Eastern Region shouldn’t lack for drama. Two teams from the Mid State Conference, including defending 3A State Champion Eastern Alamance, made the postseason. The Eagles, seeded fifth, open with Havelock. Western Alamance, the Mid State Runner-up, will travel to Hope Mills to face Gray’s Creek.
Topsail, which finished second in the 4A/3A Mideastern Conference (behind Hoggard, a 4A team), earned the #1 seed. The Pirates open with Franklinton. D.H. Conley, which is ranked #1 in the MaxPreps rankings, was seeded #8 and could potentially travel to Topsail for the second round on Wednesday.
The second round of the playoffs is slated for Wednesday. The 3rd round is scheduled for next Friday.