No rally caps. No hokey chants from the dugout. No pep talks.
Orange didn’t need any of that for the greatest comeback in the baseball’s team history on Friday night. They just needed a reminder of who they were and what they were playing for.
Even if the hole they were in couldn’t have been much darker or deeper.
Triton, who had only four losses all year, had just scored five runs in the tenth inning in the second round of the 3A State Playoffs. It appeared that Kenneth McCoy had delivered the death blow with a three-run triple that bounced into the right field corner. It put the Hawks up 8-4. Then centerfielder Wyatt Avery lined a single up the middle to score McCoy for extra measure.
It was the most runs Orange had given up in an inning all year.
It seemed like a certain ending to a successful season, but not in the Orange dugout. That’s where Ryan Hench and assistant coach Matt Roberts told the team things weren’t over—even if it took a miracle.
Roberts reminded the players the pressure wasn’t on them, it was on Triton.
Hench knew from experience. As a sophomore in 2021, he was the pitcher when Cedar Ridge led Orange 6-3 with the Panthers down to its last strike at Red Wolves Field. Hench drove in the game-tying double and Orange went on to score eleven runs in the seventh to win 13-6.
“You draw off of experiences like that,” said Orange coach Jason Knapp. “Ryan took over ownership after that in the dugout talking to players. That’s something I haven’t seen around here since I’ve been here. Seniors taking ownership. All of them.”
Two years later, the Panthers would chip away at seemingly insurmountable odds 90 feet at a time.
In the most dramatic way possible, junior Wyatt Hedrick became the unlikely hero. He lined a single up the middle with the bases loaded to bring in Cameron Guentensberger in front of a raucous crowd at Panther Field. The Panthers won 9-8 in ten innings to advance to the Round of 16 in the 3A State Playoffs. Orange scored six runs in the bottom of the tenth, its longest game since 2017.
“I didn’t think it was over,” Knapp said. “I’m not going to sit here and say I felt great. But we have watched ourselves be able to do stuff like that, especially on this field. We can erupt at any time with a big, crooked number. We knew the guy they were throwing had some good velocity, but we knew he could walk some games.”
Orange will face Cape Fear, the champions of the United Eight Conference, on Tuesday night in Hillsborough.
Wherever the Panthers go from here, Friday night will be the source of discussion for years to come at reunions and get togethers amongst the players and coaches, not only because it was a giant comeback in the playoffs, but also the sheer craziness of it all.
There was Garrett Sawyer, who hadn’t had a plate appearance all season, somehow batting cleanup in the 10th inning of a state playoff game. Or Hedrick, who had been a part-time starter behind Cross Clayton at second base, with his first career three-hit game. Or Henry Huffman, making his varsity debut after playing on the JV team the whole season, nearly scoring the game-wining run in the ninth.
The Panthers’ season was on life support several times. Triton broke a 2-2 tie in the seventh when leadoff man Jalen Evans scored off a single to right field by Braxton Davis.
Connor Nordan led off the seventh with a liner to left field. Elijah Santos came on to run for Nordan. Santos reached second and third base off consecutive wild pitches. Ryan Honeycutt sent a soft pop fly to shallow centerfield that dropped between Evans and Avery. Santos scored the game-tying run and Honeycutt reached second on the throw. After Ryan Horton was intentionally walked with one out, Neo Best flew out to Avery. Hedrick nearly won the game in the seventh, but Avery made a diving catch in center to extend the game into extra innings.
Nordan led off the ninth with a single to centerfield that somehow got past Avery to the centerfield fence. After Nordan got an extra base, Orange coach Jason Knapp gambled. He pinch-ran Huffman for Nordan to get a faster runner at second. That meant Nordan, who leads the team with 38 RBIs would leave the game permanently.
“That’s was a tough call,” Knapp said. “He gave me a hug after the game. I told him I felt like we needed to get a little more speed out there and try to end it. He was like ‘Coach, I love you and you did what you had to do.'”
Guentensberger drilled a single up the middle that appeared to be enough to win. Yet Avery threw a frozen rope to the plate, where catcher Anthony Jones tagged out Huffman and deny the game-winning run. Relief pitcher Tucker Brown struck out Honeycutt and Horton to send it to the tenth.
Orange appeared to run out of arms in the tenth. Jones got a leadoff walk. Xander Johnson laid down a bunt where Sawyer slipped while fielding it. Ross Stevens loaded the bases off another walk. Diminutive second baseman William Meredith got a bases-loaded walk to score Hayden Campbell, running for Jones, to put the Hawks ahead 4-3 and things were just getting going. McKoy pulled a fastball from Guentensberger, who replaced Sawyer, for a bases-clearing triple. Johnson, Stevens and Meredith all came in to make it 7-3. With still no outs, Avery singled to right field to bring in McCoy.
In retrospect, what seemed like a harmless sequence with Triton ahead 8-3 turned out to be monumental. After Evans doubled, Davis grounded out to Hedrick for the second out. Evans, running at second, took off for third thinking that Avery would try to score from third. Avery wound up in a rundown where Horton tagged him out at the plate for your basic 4-3-6-2 double play.
By that point, Triton probably didn’t care. It seemed they had a surplus of runs and were ready to start a joyous bus ride by to Erwin for a game that had already surpassed three hours.
Braxton Davis, who threw six innings on Tuesday night in the Hawks 12-2 win over Scotland County in the first round, started the tenth for Triton. He induced Neo Best to ground out to Stevens at first base.
Then six straight Panthers reached base.
Hedrick and Jackson Berini walked. David Waitt, who leads the team with 33 hits, drove a fastball into the outfield to load the bases. Hench got drilled on the left knee with a fastball for a run battered in to score Hedrick.
That left Sawyer, in his first plate appearance of the season, in a bizzaro world at-bat with the season on the line. Sawyer worked the count until he got ball four outside to score Berini. Guentensberger ripped a fastball to left field to score Waitt and Hench and reduce the Hawks lead to 8-7.
Triton coach David Reece called in Avery from centerfield to pitch. The Hawks got within one out of the win when Honeycutt flew out to Jones, who moved to right field.
Best, who led off the frame with a groundout, came up to bat 0-for-5. He stayed patient as Avery, who didn’t warm up in the bullpen before going into the game, walked up with ball four well outside of the plate. Sawyer scored amid the loudest crowd pop you’re likely to hear following a walk.
Hedrick returned to the plate, the 11th Panther to hit in the inning. On a 2-2 pitch, Hedrick smoked a liner to centerfield to complete the most miraculous comeback in school history. Guentensberger, who earned the win on the mound, touched the plate for the game-winning run as Triton players collapsed in shock.
Orange, whose last loss was on March 21 is now 24-3. They have now won 17 in a row, but no one in attendance on Friday night will ever forget the Panthers’ latest victory.