During summer weightlifting sessions for the Orange lacrosse team, the score “13-7” was written on the white board beside the entrance.
Every time the players left a workout, they would see that score written in back ink that served as a less-than-subtle reminder to the end of an otherwise successful 2022 season, when Orange hosted the 3A/2A/1A Eastern Regional Championship game for the first time.
It was a moment where Orange truly arrived as a lacrosse program. Thousands of fans gathered at Auman Stadium to see if the Panthers could reach the state championship game. Yet the moment may have overwhelmed the Panthers, who once played in empty stadiums when lacrosse was an afterthought compared to the more traditional baseball and softball programs.
In the regional title game, First Flight’s defense flustered Orange into uncharacteristic mistakes. The Nighthawks held Orange to one goal over 23:26 and advanced to play for the state championship for the first time ever.
By a score of 13-7.
The First Flight team that returned to Auman Stadium on Tuesday night was the same as last year’s in name only. The Nighthawks lost nine seniors, including their top five scorers and goalkeeper Porter Smith. Jacob Gray, who scored five goals against Orange last May, was supposed to return for his senior season yet opted for the Coast Guard Academy instead.
But Orange was still facing First Flight. More importantly, they were facing the Nighthawks in the 3rd round of the 3A/2A/1A State Playoffs.
Which made the results no less gratifying. The irony was that the key to Orange’s victory was defense.
Senior Tigh Metheny scored Orange’s first three goals, all assisted by junior Connor Kruse, while the Panthers (17-3) held the Nighthawks scoreless for 18:56 through the second and third quarters in an 9-4 victory at Auman Stadium. Orange, the #1 seed in the East Region of the 3A/2A/1A State Playoffs, will face Carrboro on Friday night in the state quarterfinals at Auman Stadium.
Carrboro rolled past Cape Fear 17-3 at Jaguars Stadium.
First Flight, the co-champions of the Northeastern Conference with Croatan, ends the season 8-6.
While the Panthers found its rhythm in the second quarter, they were disjointed and sloppy early. Metheny’s sidearm shot off a feed from Kruse with 6:45 remaining was Orange’s only goal of the opening quarter.
The game turned on a sequence late in the second quarter. With Orange leading 3-2 and 4:45 remaining in the first half, First Flight Captain Cam Van Lunen intercepted a clearance pass and found sophomore Cody Keller up the field for a breakaway. It appeared the game would soon be tied, but Keller opted to go low against Orange goalkeeper Katie Wolter, who kicked it away. Defenseman Braden Hunt won the subsequent ground ball and sent it into the attacking end on a feed to Kruse, who found Metheny for a pinpoint shot that hit the back of the net.
After Orange freshman Matthew Macneir won the face-off, Wimsatt passed to Kruse for another goal seven seconds later to push the Panthers lead to 5-2 at halftime.
Kruse factored into all five Orange goals in the first half, assisting on four of them.
“Katie is a Division I goalkeeper for a reason,” said Orange coach Chandler Zirkle. “That was a huge one. The fact that we were able to make defensive stands throughout the game.”
Wolter has committed to American University, where she earned a scholarship.
First Flight was whistled for four penalties in the opening four minutes of the second quarter, including an illegal stick penalty to open the frame. That led to Metheny scoring with 9:01 remaining following an unnecessary roughness penalty with 9;31 remaining for the first of Orange’s two man-up goals. Metheny would add another two minutes later off a unsportsmanlike conduct call with 10:19 left.
Orange outscored the Nighthawks 5-0 in the third quarter. Jake Wimsatt, a senior who just recently returned to action after injuring his MCL early in the season, scored his second goal with 8:50 remaining off a pass from Kruse. Josh Cowan added two more goals in a span of 31 seconds, the first assisted by Josh Crabtree. Senior Joe Cady provided the highlight reel play of the night with a behind-the-back pass to sophomore Gray Crabtree, who finished it to put Orange ahead 9-2.
Freshman Danny Gardill had two goals for the Nighthawks, including one in the fourth quarter. Junior Bert Waddington also notched a goal in the final quarter, a frame where Orange was more content to run the clock out that scoring.
The Panthers have reached the state quarterfinals for three straight years and are one win away from hosting the Eastern Regional Championship game for the second straight season.
“First Flight plays so hard,” Zirkle said. “The nice thing we have is depth. It helps when you can put a freshman out (Brett Clark) at the end of the first half to replace tired players. Realistically, he’s not supposed to be playing heavy minutes right now, but he’s able to go out on the field and give us some good ones. That’s a big difference maker.”