In a Big 8 Conference race narrowed down to a precious six games due to the pandemic in 2021, the margin of error for timely hitting was unfairly small.
Faced with a winner-takes-all battle against Northern Durham for the Big 8 Championship last May in Hillsborough, the Panthers didn’t have many opportunities against Knights ace Matthew Lombard, who threw a three-hit shutout in a 4-0 Northern win. That victory was enough for Northern to earn the #1 seed for the 3A State Playoffs out of the Big 8 Conference.
Nine months later, Orange found itself in another pitcher’s dual against the Knights, this time as a non conference opponent. This time, the familiar names of a year ago came through.
Jackson Berini drew a bases-loaded walk with two out in the bottom of the sixth inning, followed by a two-run single by right fielder David Waitt to push Orange past Northern Durham 4-1 at Orange Baseball Field on Tuesday night in the season opener for both teams. The Panthers (1-0) defeated Northern for the fifth time in its last seven meetings.
The Panthers used five pitchers over seven innings, including starter Ryan Hench. Orange limited the Knights to two hits. Northern still had various opportunities throughout the night courtesy of eight walks, but sophomore Cross Clayton threw a scoreless sixth inning in his first varsity appearance to earn the win. Connor Funk, starting his third varsity season, came in for his first career save with a scoreless seventh inning, striking out two.
“Connor had an outstanding summer with us,” said Orange coach Jason Knapp. “He had regular starts with us during the summer and the fall. He works hard and is a bulldog on the mound. Right now, we feel like he’s our second starter and we’ll see where that takes us.”
Hench, who went 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA last season, struck out seven over two-and-two-thirds innings as opening night starter.
Northern pieced together its only run off of Hench in the third inning. Knights’ catcher Seth Lumpkin lined a single to centerfield. After Charles McDowell went down on strikes for the second out, Hench left the game after walking Jackson Bishop. Joey Pounds relieved Hench. Northern’s Aidan Rice drew a walk to load the bases. Freddie Oliver was hit by a pitch to score Lumpkin and even the game.
Orange grabbed the lead in the opening inning when catcher Davis Horton, who had a base hit in every regular season game last season, doubled to centerfield to score Berini, who drew a walk to start the game.
Northern had a chance to break the tie in the fifth inning when McDowell reached on an error. McDowell advanced to second off a groundout by Bishop, then went to third as Berini retired Rice. After Oliver was intentionally walked by Orange reliever Cezar Lozano, Kyle Thomas drew a free pass to load the bases. Northern’s Noah Guerrette grounded a 2-0 fastball to Hench at third base, who threw to Codey Snipes at first to escape the jam.
Clayton drew a leadoff walk to start the sixth inning. With Nev Best at bat, Clayton stole second and then rushed to third when the subsequent throw wound up in centerfield. After 6-foot-6 pinch hitter Ryan Honeycutt, replacing Snipes, drew a walk, it placed runners at the corners. Funk walked against Northern reliever Thomas, leading to Berini’s walk to give Orange the lead. Waitt’s single in the next at-bat brought in pinch runner Ty Walker, who replaced Honeycutt, as well as Funk.
Northern made some noise in the 7th inning. McDowell singled between the 5-6 hole in left field to lead off the frame, then stole second. After Bishop grounded out to Berini, McDowell went to third. Funk struck out Oliver and Stormey Swearingen to end the game.
It was the third time in four years that Orange won its season opener. The Panthers will be right back in action on Wednesday afternoon against East Chapel Hill, another former Big 8 Conference rival. Orange travels to Middle Creek on Friday afternoon.