MEBANE—At the beginning of the season, no one would have batted an eye if the Orange baseball team entered its final road game of the season needing a win to take the Central Carolina Conference championship.
Aside from Connor Funk and Cesar Lozano, their entire pitching staff from 2022 was back, including starters Ryan Hench, Cross Clayton and Joey Pounds. So were their top six hitters from last year.
Indeed, Orange emerged from Mebane on Tuesday night with a 10-1 victory over Eastern Alamance to win the CCC title. The path to the title may have looked simple to the naked eye, but it really didn’t happen that way at all.
Shortly after winning the season-opener against East Chapel Hill, Clayton suffered an injury to his throwing hand that kept him from pitching for over a month, including the opening two conference series. Hench was injured in the fourth game of the year against Grimsley in Greensboro on March 8. He didn’t return to the mound until Tuesday night.
All told, Orange’s tandem of Hench and Clayton completed one trip through the rotation together during opening week–and that’s it.
As fate would have it, Hench made his long-awaited return to the mound on Tuesday night at the very place where his Orange career started. In March 2020, he made his Panther debut as a freshman in relief of Mason Thompson and closed out a 6-2 win over Eastern Alamance in Mebane. A week later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season.
On Tuesday, Hench returned and showed glimpses of his power that led to him committing to North Carolina. Hench slammed a two-run homer in the sixth as Orange (19-2, 9-2 in the CCC) pulled away from the Eagles 10-1 at Eagle Field.
It’s Orange’s third straight conference championship, their second outright CCC title. In 2021, the Panthers tied Northern Durham for the Big 8 Conference championship through a strange format where only the first meetings between conference rivals counted in the standings.
For head coach Jason Knapp, it’s a championship worth savoring.
“I’ve been coaching for 24 years,” Knapp said. “My first 19 years, I only won one conference championship. So these things don’t come easy. Now, we’ve won three straight conference titles. I specifically talked to those seniors and told them how proud I am of them and what they’ve brought to the table. Of all those seniors, Berini, Waitt, Hench and Pounds, they were all a corps that started it during their sophomore seasons during the pandemic. They have all been leaders since that time.”
Playing on its senior night, Eastern Alamance came into the game with eight straight conference losses. The Panthers jumped right on them with three runs in the opening inning. Jackson Berini, who has scored a run in 18 of Orange’s 21 games, drew a leadoff walk, stole second, and eventually scored a wild pitch third strike, which Hench swung and missed at. Junior centerfielder Cameron Guentensberger, who finished 3-for-5 with three RBIs, bounced a grounder dead over the middle into centerfield to score Hench. Catcher Ryan Horton drove a double to the right field gap to bring in Guentensberger.
Eastern countered with a threat against Hench in their opening at-bat. Senior pitcher Cole McGuiness doubled down the third base line. Gage Parsons took a fastball deep to centerfield, which backed Guentensberger up all the way to the fence for the catch. McGuiness reached third with one out, but Landon Linens flew out to Guentensberger and Hench struck out Garrett Cloutier to end the threat.
Guentensberger made four putouts on the night.
“Cameron is the most underrated player on this team,” Knapp said. “He’s a solid centerfielder. After McGuiness led off with that double, Cameron backed up against the fence to make that catch. He made a great player and got it in quick. If he keeps swinging the bat and we make a deep run, he’s going to show people he’s a next level guy.”
With one out in the second, Elijah Santos drew a walk. David Waitt reached on a dropped liner in the infield. Hench walked to load the bases. Senior Connor Nordan lined a 0-1 fastball to centerfield to score Waitt and Santos. Nordan leads Orange with 32 RBIs.
Hench pitched three scoreless innings during his stint. In the third, Triston Keck reached third base after a dropped third strike wild pitch, which led to Parsons reaching. Hench struck out Linens for his final out.
“Ryan was what I thought he was going to be,” Knapp said. “There was a bit of rust. I could tell he was juiced up and ready to go. He was amped and wasn’t hitting the spot in the first couple of batters. But then he settled in and got out of the first inning jam. He had a clean inning in the second. I felt like he needed to pitch the third to get into a rhythm. It’s good to have him back on the field.”
Josiah Gibbs replaced Hench and earned his sixth win of the season. In three innings, Gibbs struck out six and conceded just one hit–a solo homer by McGuiness in the fifth, the Eagles’ only run of the game.
Guentensberger lined a two-run single in the seventh to score Waitt and Hench. Earlier, Nordan knocked in Berini with a RBI groundout to Cloutier at third base.
With the conference championship, Orange will get a bye into the semifinals of next week’s Central Carolina Conference Tournament. Orange will also be seeded among the top 11 teams in the East Region of the 3A State Tournament. As of Wednesday, Orange is ranked #3 in the RPI East Region rankings behind J.H. Rose and Currituck County.