All that stands between Orange High and its first-ever trip to the 3A/2A/1A State Lacrosse Championship is a showdown with a conference rival.

Orange and Northwood are no strangers to one another. When they meet tonight (Tuesday) for the 3A/2A/1A Eastern Regional Championship at Auman Stadium, it will be their seventh meeting since March 8, 2021. On that night, the Chargers disposed of the Panthers easily, 17-6, at Chargers Stadium in Pittsboro.

It was hardly a surprise. It was the Chargers fifth win in six meetings against the Panthers. But like a lot of stuff since Chandler Zirkle took over the Orange lacrosse program, things changed at warp speed.

Just nine days later, the Panthers stunned the Chargers 10-9 to advance to the state quarterfinals for the first time in program history. Freshman Connor Kruse scored the game-winning goal late in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Jake Wimsatt tied the game off a man-up goal following an illegal stick penalty. Two years later, that call still sticks in the craw of some Northwood fans. It took a goal off the scoreboard that would have given the Chargers the lead.

The following year, the Panthers and the Chargers became rivals in the Mid-Carolina Conference. Yet the Panthers have beaten the Chargers four straight times, including twice this season, and have won 30 consecutive conference game overall.

Orange eased into the regional championship game after belting Carrboro 15-7 on Friday night at Auman Stadium. Kruse, who leads the team with 67 goals, paced Orange with four goals and two assists. Senior Joe Cady had a hat trick, putting him at 40 goals on the season.

“I thought we have a lot of skill and we played OK at times,” Zirkle said. “I thought we were focused on trying to play better and take the next step for Northwood. I think some of the guys thought we overlooked last year’s semifinal (also against Carrboro) so we’re trying to be critical of ourselves and focusing on what needs to be fixed.”

Wimsatt, who recently returned after an MCL injury kept him out of the lineup for most of the season, added a goal in the third quarter. For Orange’s ascendance to the top of the conference, Wimsatt was the ace face-off man. Wimsatt’s injury kept him on the sidelines while freshman Matthew MacNair handled duties at the dot. Yet Wimsatt’s presence makes Orange deeper than the last time they played Northwood, a 16-10 Orange win in Pittsboro on April 19.

“It’s such a boost to have Jake,” Zirkle said. “He just makes us better. He’s helped us a lot.”

The Chargers will be deeper, too. Northwood (17-3) is expected to have Grayson Cox, the son of head coach Randy Cox, back in the lineup after he missed last month’s game due to a broken wrist. Junior defenseman Ryan Brinker is also slated to return after suffering a shoulder injury earlier this year.

Northwood edged Croatan 5-4 last week to reach the state quarterfinals, then hammered Havelock 15-4 on Friday in Pittsboro.

“I know they’ll have some type of wrinkle up their sleeve,” Zirkle said. “I’m not sure what to expect. We’ll have to figure out what it could be. It’s going to be interesting. They have a 3-3 zone that use. I wouldn’t be surprised if they use a 10-man ride. I expect they’ll be at their best version of themselves.”

For the Chargers, the game could be a last stand for a senior class that has reached the regional championship game for the first time in school history. Seniors Will Smith (63 goals and 100 points), Taylor LaBerge (60 goals and 98 points) and Jason Walden (76 points) will fight to reach the state championship game–and end a five-game losing streak to Orange.

Orange (18-3) is looking to become just the second team from Hillsborough to win a regional championship in lacrosse. Last year, thousands of fans packed Auman Stadium to see Orange face off against First Flight for the regional title. But the moment may have overwhelmed a Panther team with only five seniors. First Flight defeated Orange 13-7.

Now, Orange starters like Kruse, Cady, Wimsatt, Tigh Metheny and defensive standouts like Braden Hunt, Sascha Van Praag and Josiah Tisdale are a year wiser with more playoff experience that any Orange team in history.

“I’m sure we’re more prepared in some capacity,” Zirkle said. “It’s tough to quantify that. It’s gives us a reference point about what to think about as opposed to going into it blind. That’s a positive. And the end of the day, you’ve got to make the plays in front of you on the field. You’ve got to figure out the right way to play, make sure you win.”

Six years ago today, Cedar Ridge won the 3A/2A/1A Eastern Regional Championship when they defeated Chapel Hill 11-8 at Red Wolves Stadium.



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