In a sport that’s as fickle as baseball, there are some mistakes you don’t stop paying for.
Orange jumped right on Cape Fear left hander Caden Jeffrey in the opening inning on Tuesday night, scoring five runs. It proved to be enough for the Panthers to advance to the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2014.
Orange senior Ryan Hench struck out nine over six innings, and added an RBI single for the opening run of the game as the Panthers defeated the Colts 5-0 in the third round of the 3A State Playoffs. The Panthers poured on so many runs early on, the fact they didn’t put another runner in scoring position in the final six innings didn’t matter.
The Panthers are 25-2, their most wins in a season since the 2013 team that went 27-4.
The last time the Panthers went to the state quarterfinals, it was 2016 during Bryse Wilson’s senior year. That squad finished 21-7 and lost to Topsail in the playoffs.
Orange will host Southern Lee on Friday night in the fourth round of the state playoffs. The Cavaliers defeated Currituck County 10-7 in Barco on Tuesday night.
Hench, a UNC commitment, improved to 4-0 with a 0.55 ERA in his sixth appearance of the season. Senior Joey Pounds tossed a perfect seventh to complete the Panthers’ first shutout since they beat Person 3-0 on April 5.
“Ryan was able to locate the fastball real well,” said Orange coach Jason Knapp. “He had his slider working well to compliment it. It was really, really good. Those guys (Cape Fear) battled. They had nine hits, but we played well behind Ryan. Our gloves played well.”
Just the fact Orange was playing at all on Tuesday night was miraculous in and of itself. On Friday, Triton led the Panthers 8-3 going into the bottom of the tenth inning before Orange staged the rally of a lifetime. They scored six runs in the bottom of the tenth, off five walks, three hits and a hit batter, to emerge with a 9-8 win in the greatest comeback in team history.
Word of the rally spread like wildfire, even for those who left the game early, and it became the talk of the community during Mother’s Day weekend. By Monday afternoon, Knapp said his team had largely put it behind them.
“This is a seasoned team,” Knapp said. “We’ve been through some battles. When we came in Monday, we talked about it for a second. Then we went out and had a great practice. I wasn’t a bit worried about that.”
Cape Fear (18-11), the champions of the United 8 Conference, mounted the game’s first threat when Mason Hughes lined a two-out single to right field. Hughes advanced to third on an errant pickoff throw by Hench, who responded by striking out Evan Bunce to end the inning.
Orange had six of its ten hits in the opening inning, starting with a leadoff single by senior Jackson Berini. David Waitt sent a hard grounder to right field, easily moving Berini to third. Hench’s single got through to left field to score Berini for the opening run. Pounds came on for Hench as a courtesy runner while Waitt moved over to third on a passed ball. Cameron Guentensberger walked to load the bases. With two out, Ryan Honeycutt hit a bouncing ball though the 5-6 hole to score Waitt. Neo Best reached on an infield hit where Colts third baseman Hunter Darden made a diving stop but couldn’t come up with a play. Pounds crossed the plate to make it 3-0. Wyatt Hedrick, who had the game-winning hit in the 10th inning against Triton, continued his hot streak with a soft liner that dropped in front of left fielder Ethan Wienand. Ty Walker, running in place of Honeycutt, just beat the throw from left field to score along with Guentensberger.
That was all Orange needed, but their defense put in work. Jackson Rainey and Spencer Perez each had singles to start the second, but Hench struck out Darden. Wienand flew out to Waitt in right field.
Bunce led off the fourth with a single to left field, but was thrown out by Honeycutt trying to steal second.
The Colts biggest threat came in the fifth when Wienand led off with a double down the left field line. Ethan Colletti went opposite field for a single, where Wienand was held at third. Mason Hughes sent a grounder to Best at third base. Best held Wienand at third while he threw out Colletti at second. Bunce advanced on a dropped third strike, but Hughes was thrown out at second to end the inning
Orange’s Elijah Santos made a superb catch in left field in the sixth to retire Perez. It came after Jackson lined a single to right field. Santos made another big catch on Darden to end the threat.
Berini and Waitt each finished 2-for-3.
Now Orange will face Southern Lee, who the Panthers have occasionally played in non-conference games over the years.
“They have a new coach, but he has them playing great,” Knapp said. “He has them playing as hot as a firecracker right now. Anytime you can travel all the way down to Currituck County and find yourself a way to win, you know you’ve got a great program.”
Southern Lee has become a sentimental favorite in the state tournament after head coach Tommy Harrington suffered a near-fatal ATV accident in December. Harrington, who replaced David Lee as head coach last year, finished 2nd in the Sandhills Conference behind Pinecrest, a 4A school.