The surroundings were there for a coronation.
A year after looking out of sorts in its first-ever Eastern Regional Championship game appearance against First Flight, the Orange lacrosse team looked to get it right on Tuesday night at Auman Stadium in another state semifinal appearance.
Their opponent, Northwood, had lost five straight games to the Panthers. On April 19 in Pittsboro, the Panthers ruined the Chargers’ senior night with a 16-10 win that clinched the Mid-Carolina Conference championship.
Yet despite Orange’s dominance in the rivalry, Northwood looked like the most desperate team on Tuesday night, as they should have. It was the last chance for seniors Will Smith, Taylor Laberge, Jason Walden, Will Johnson and Taylor Zelholf to beat Orange.
They played like it was their last game. It led to the Chargers first regional championship.
As the buzzer sounded on Northwood’s 10-8 upset win over the Panthers in the 3A/2A/1A Eastern Regional Championship game, the jubilant Chargers all threw their white sticks in the air while Orange coach Chandler Zirkle watched from the sidelines.
Northwood advances to face Lake Norman Charter in the State Championship game at Durham County Stadium.
It was a crushing disappointment for Orange (18-4), who was held to a season-low eight goals against a 3A/2A/1A opponent. Junior Connor Kruse, the Panthers’ leading scorer who went into the game with a right leg injury, was held without a goal for the first time this season.
It was Orange’s first loss against a team from its own classification all year. The Panthers had been ranked #1 in the RPI East Region all season. Northwood was #2.
Tigh Metheny, in his final game at Orange, scored two goals. After the final buzzer, an inconsolable Metheny was motionless laying face-down in the middle of the field as his teammates gathered around him in a show of support.
“Northwood made the plays in front of them,” Zirkle said after addressing his team. “They did a great job of that. We just didn’t hit our shots. We turned the ball over too much and created turnover opportunities.”
The wear and tear of playing 21 games caught up with Orange. In addition to Kruse’s injury, freshman Matthew MacNair was also banged up after establishing himself in place of senior Jake Wimsatt, who injured his MCL in March.
Without a healthy Kruse, Orange’s offense looked disjointed. A superb effort by Johnson, who defended Kruse most of the night, kept the Panthers from getting into a rhythm. After Josh Cowan notched Orange’s opening goal off a rebound conceded by Northwood goalkeeper James Flanagan 97 seconds into the game, the Panthers didn’t score for nearly twelve minutes.
“18 wins is the most we’ve had as a program,” Zirkle said. “That’s a lot of games on the legs. Connor’s biggest strength has been his durability. We had all the chances we needed to try to score and we just couldn’t execute it.”
Northwood controlled possession the final five minutes of the first quarter. They evened the game when Carson Fortunes found Smith darting through the heart of the slot for a transition goal. Then Laberge notched an unassisted goal when he fired an overhand shot past Orange goalkeeper Katie Wolter. Fortunes hit Walden on the doorstep for a dunk shot to make it 3-1 Chargers with 2:28 remaining in the first quarter.
Orange quickly tied it in the second quarter with two goals in 22 seconds, both assisted by freshman Brandon Williams. Luke Nevius fired in a sidearm bazooka from 16 yards. After a slashing penalty against Taylor Zelholf, Metheny tallied Orange’s first man-up goal with 10:26 remaining in the first half.
It felt like the Panthers had found their offensive legs after a sluggish first quarter, but that was the final time the game was tied.
Laberge added his second goal off an assist from Fortunes. After Orange’s Nick Cardone was called for slashing, Walden scored off an assist from Smith for the Chargers only man-up goal. Wimsatt responded with a sidearm shot assisted by Kruse with 1:12 remaining to make it 5-4 at halftime.
Walden bounced in his third goal to start the second half off a feed from Laberge. Metheny ripped his second goal off a feed from Kruse, but the Panthers were held scoreless for the final 5:28 of the third quarter. Smith’s second goal off a pass from Van Reece gave the Chargers a 7-5 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Cowan scored from the top of the box on a sidearm shot to begin the fourth quarter, but Northwood built a three-goal lead afterwards. Laberge completed his hat trick off a pass from Walden. Fortunes added his only goal of the game.
Orange fought back with two goals in 44 seconds, the first from senior Joe Cady. Josh Crabtree added another after an offside penalty to cut the Chargers lead to 9-8, but the Panthers couldn’t win a face-off. Coltrane Northington had a strong game for the Chargers at the face-off dot. Walden’s fourth goal with 3;08 remaining put the game on ice.
After Orange defeated Northwood on April 19 to complete a season sweep, it felt like the Panthers could punch its own ticket to the state championship game. It was why they played powerful 4A schools like Green Level and Wilmington Laney early in the season. Instead, the Chargers didn’t win a conference championship, but they did take a regional championship.
“It just sucks,” Zirkle said. “The kids did so much to try to get back to this point and try to take the next step. We weren’t able to do that. So it’s on to next year.”
It was a bitter disappointment for seniors Wimsatt, Cady, Cardone, Metheny, Josiah Tisdale, Braden Hunt, Seth Hall, Andrew Harris and Dalton Murphy, who leave after putting Orange lacrosse higher on the totem pole amid the crowded spring sports landscape in Hillsborough. Together, they won the first two conference championships in school history and hosted a regional title game twice with three trips to the state quarterfinals.
“We love them,” Zirkle said. “They left with the most wins in program history. They’ve done a phenomenal job.”