For a team that has its top two pitchers back from a squad that won its final eleven regular season conference games last year, it’s not very surprising that Orange has started 6-0 for the first time since 2016.

Except it isn’t that simple.

Top starting pitcher Ryan Hench has missed the last two games while junior Cross Clayton hasn’t pitched since opening night. Yet the Panthers weren’t phased when they opened Central Carolina Conference action against Western Alamance on Tuesday afternoon.

Junior Josiah Gibbs, starting his second straight game, threw four shutout innings against the Warriors to earn his second win in as many games. Senior leadoff hitter Jackson Berini lined a two-run single during a five-run fifth inning as the Panthers broke open a tight game to win 7-1 at Panther Field.

Orange had dropped its past two games at home against Western Alamance. Last year, the Warriors upset the Panthers 5-4 in Hillsborough. In 2020, Western took the season-opener 9-7 in nine innings.

The decisive finals score disguised some hairy moments for Orange in the middle innings. The Warriors were 90 feet away from tying the game in the fifth inning. With Orange leading 2-0, Camden McCandless drove a double to left field past a diving Elijah Santos. Tyler Atkins lined a one-out double to left that hopped over the wall for a grounder rule double. Atkins advanced to third on a wild pitch. Aidan McCandless sent a high fly to centerfield, where Cameron Guentensberger made the catch and delivered a strong throw that kept courtesy runner Will Patillo from scoring. With two out, Landon Rose grounded out to Neo Best to end the inning.

Western Alamance reliever Zack Oakley delivered a gallant performance amid emergency circumstances. Rose, who started, injured his elbow early in the second inning as he pitched to Clayton. Oakley was summoned from the bullpen after Rose couldn’t continue. After Clayton walked, Best lined a single to centerfield. Santos grounded a ball that got past the third baseman to load the bases. Berini sent a fielder’s choice to second baseman Parker Queen, who threw out Santos at second on a fielder’s choice where Clayton scored. David Waitt lined a two-out single to right field to bring in Best.

In four innings of work, Gibbs allow only four hits and one walk with five strikeouts. Senior Joey Pounds threw two innings and protected the lead.

Ryan Honeycutt drew a one-out walk to start the fifth. Ty Walker, a courtesy runner for Honeycutt, moved to second base on a wild pitch. Designated hitter Wyatt Hedrick sent a grounder to shortstop Eli Abbott, who caught Walker in a rundown. But the throw to third base was dropped and Walker was safe. Clayton walked to load the bases. Santos drove in his first run of the season with a bases-loaded walk with two out to plate Walker. Berini delivered the biggest hit of the game with a two-run single to centerfield. Waitt followed with an RBI single to right field, scoring Santos. Connor Nordan, who has had an RBI in each of Orange’s first six games, sent a worm burner to left field to bring in Berini.

Pounds sent the Warriors down in order in the sixth inning. Coltin Hedrick struck out two batters in the seventh to close down the night just as it was getting chilly.

Orange will travel to Elon tonight to complete the two-game series with the Warriors. The Panthers are scheduled to travel to Historic Fleming Stadium to face South Central on Saturday night in Wilson. Orange has lost in its last two trips to Wilson. In 2020, they fell to Wilson Fike. Last year, they fell to Perquimans, who went on to win the 1A State Championship.

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