Replacing a legend isn’t easy, even if it has been something fairly common around Orange the past few years.
When Dean Dease retired after 503 career wins at the end of the 2018 season, he figured Walter Williams head coach Jason Knapp would be a fitting replacement. Some of the players who helped Knapp make the transition into his new program were Will Walker, Jordan Underwood and Pierson Kenney, all sophomores making their varsity debuts in March 2019.
It would be a stretch to say that Knapp coached those seniors for three years. Part of what made 2020 so difficult was the time it took away for coaches and players to develop and work together. On March 12, 2020, two days after Orange defeated East Chapel Hill in its Big 8 Conference opener, Knapp had to tell the team that their season was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic for three weeks. They would never play together again.
Knapp later described that meeting “felt like somebody had kicked me in the gut and ripped my heart out.” It was not an enviable position for any coach, much less someone in charge of the vaunted Orange baseball program just starting their second year. For all of the rigorous day-to-day duties that Dease did in 31 years, he never had to tell a team that their season was suspended because of a worldwide pandemic only three weeks into a campaign. Especially a team that that had Joey Berini as a senior, one year after he was named Big 8 Conference Player of the Year. Whether it was fate or karma, Berini’s final at-bat in an Orange uniform was the first grand slam of his career against East.
So when Asheboro’s Camden Walker scored from first base off a double by sophomore Tanner Marsh in the bottom of the seventh inning to pull out a 5-4 win in the opening round of the 3A State Playoffs on Tuesday night at McCrary Park, there was a combination of shock and sadness in the Orange dugout. Some players were inconsolable.
For Knapp, this was the first Orange class that helped him get indoctrinated to Hillsborough. They made him feel less like an outsider during a time when it was harder to establish his own identity in a program because of the pandemic, where there were no games nor practices.
“Our seniors did a great job leading the way,” Knapp said. “I told them I can’t believe its over. It’s been such a crazy time with COVID. Those seniors have been a staple of the program. They’ve been a cornerstone.”
Each of the Orange seniors ended their careers playing some of their best ball. Walker drew three walks against the Blue Comets. While that runs counter to Walker’s reputation as a power hitter, the bases on balls came at a point when the Panthers trailed 4-0 and needed baserunners. Sure enough, Walker scored the Panthers’ opening run off a double play grounder, and followed with the game-tying run after Asheboro surged to a 4-0 lead.
In his final pitching appearance, Kenney had the longest stint of his career with four innings against Northern Durham on June 10. He left the game with Orange leading 6-4. This season, Kenney went 2-0 and pitched reliably in middle relief stints against Northwood and Walkertown late in the season, each resulting in Orange wins.
The pandemic wasn’t the only thing that worked against Underwood, who entered his ill-fated junior season in 2020 as Orange’s opening night starter against Western Alamance. Underwood developed arm trouble which kept him from returning to the mound to start 2021. For the first half of the season, Kenney took his spot in the rotation while Underwood played first base. Gradually, Underwood became a dependable second starter after sophomore Ryan Hench established himself as Orange’s top man following a 2-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts to beat Chapel Hill 5-0 on May 11.
In Orange’s final four wins, Underwood captured three of them. He threw two shutout innings over Walkertown in a 7-0 victory on May 25. Against Chapel Hill on June 4, Underwood may have had the best performance of his career when he gave up just one hit in five shutout innings. Four nights later in the completion of a suspended game against Cedar Ridge, the Panthers trailed 6-3 and were down to its last strike in the 7th inning before pulling an improbable comeback to win 13-6 after scoring eleven runs in the seventh inning. Underwood replaced Hench and earned the win in relief.
And that wasn’t all. Jaren Sikes, in his first season as a starter, drove in Kenney with an RBI single in the fourth inning to cut Asheboro deficit to 4-2. Sikes would later tie the game with a bases-loaded walk. Tyler Lloyd, in his first varsity season, closed the year with hits in six of his last seven games.
Hench, Jackson Berini, David Waitt, Davis Horton, Conner Funk, Cesar Lozano and Joey Pounds will provide the leadership for Orange next season. But Knapp will always hold a special place in his heart for the seniors that helped make Hillsborough a less strange place to be three years ago.
“I’m going to miss them,” Knapp said. “Will Walker was a big part of that 2019 team. Looking back, I just hate it for them because all of those guys lost a year playing ball for Orange. But that all came back this year and just worked their tales off. I can’t thank them enough.”