Watkins’ walkoff single leads Orange past Franklinton 1-0 in state playoffs; Panthers travel to Cape Fear Thursday

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Updated: May 12, 2022

After spending this season facing several Division I college pitching prospects within its own conference, the Orange softball team is used to defensive duals.

Which meant they were well prepared for its state playoff opener on Tuesday night.

In most likely her final at-bat at Orange Softball Field, senior Courtney Watkins hit a grounder up the middle to score Kelsey Tackett in the bottom-of-the seventh inning for the game’s only run as Orange defeated Franklinton 1-0 in the opening round of the 3A State Playoffs. The Lady Panthers, seeded #14, will face Cape Fear in Fayetteville on Thursday night in the round of 32.

Watkins, the designated player hitting eighth, provided the game’s only RBI.

It was her second of the year.

Tackett provided Orange a glimmer of hope to end the scoreless stalemate with an one-out single on a fly ball to right. Serenity McPherson moved Tackett to second on a sacrifice bunt for the second out.

Orange sophomore pitcher Caden Robinson earned her fifth win of the season where she started dominant, but spent the final innings hanging on by a thread in the face of adversity, which coincidentally resembles the Lady Panthers’ injury-riddled season.

After Robinson set the first 12 Rams down in order, Franklinton loaded the bases with no one out in the fifth inning. First baseman Mackenzie Williams ended Robinson’s attempt at a perfect game after getting hit by a pitch. After shortstop Chelsea Jones walked, the Rams’ Kyndal Hopkins broke up the no-hitter with a soft pop-up that barely reached the edge of the grass behind second base to load the bases. Robinson, who is now Orange’s top pitcher after an injury to senior Gracie Walker suffered against South Granville, struck out Emelyn Kirby, then forced an infield pop-up by Makenzie Helton which was caught by Tackett. With two out, Orange senior third baseman Mary Moss Wirt fielded a quick hopper hit by Franklinton’s Allie Mabrey right along the line three steps in front of the bag. Instead of letting it go foul, Wirt instantly snatched up the ball and made a pinpoint throw to Tackett to end the inning.

Orange was largely devoid of scoring opportunities in the opening three frames. Wirt led off the fourth with a double that reached the left field corner, but was thrown out trying to steal third. Franklinton pitcher Morgan Strickland allowed six hits in six-and-two-thirds innings. Only two Orange players reached third base the whole game.

In the second, Tackett lined on a single to left and advanced to second after the ball got past the left fielder. Watkins drew a walk where ball four was a wild pitch, which allowed Tackett to get to third. Yet the threat immediately ended after Watkins was thrown out by Strickland trying to reach second off the walk.

A moment of hesitation may have cost Franklinton a chance to get a run across in the sixth inning. After Robinson struck out leadoff batter Kaylei Main, the Rams’ Noelle Faulkner sent a double over the head of Orange left fielder Savannah Wynne. Strickland followed with a faint liner to shallow right. Tackett, second baseman Sadie Cecil and right fielder Alexis Latta-Harshaw converged on the ball, which caused Faulkner to remain on second. The ball bounced where the infield dirt met the outfield grass and kicked into foul ground in right field, leading Strickland to get another double. But Faulkner’s brief uncertainty cost her a chance to score and was held at third. Robinson struck out Williams for the second out, then forced Jones into a groundout back to shut down another Franklinton threat.

Robinson, who finished with seven strikeouts, set the Rams down in order in the seventh, leading to Watkins’ heroics.

Orange will face a Cape Fear team that finished second in the 4A/3A United Eight Conference behind 4A squad Purnell Swett. The Colts, the top 3A team in the United Eight, split the season series with Purnell Swett, beating the Rams 4-3 in 14 innings on March 14. Last Thursday, Cape Fear lost to Purnell Swett in the United Eight Conference Tournament Championship game 2-0.

The Colts (21-4) disposed of Northwood, from the Central Carolina Conference, 11-0 in the opening round of the state playoffs on Tuesday.

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