This time, a five-run inning was too much for Orange to overcome.

Last week, the Panthers pulled off a miracle against Triton, who led 8-3 going into the bottom of the tenth inning. A combination of five walks, a hit batter and three hits, including a walkoff by Wyatt Hedrick, led to six runs and the most improbable comeback in school history as Orange won 9-8.

While Orange never quit battling, Southern Lee’s pitching staff was better equipped to handle a big lead in the 3A State Quarterfinals.

Behind back-to-back homers from Cooper Harrington and Ashton Donathon, the Cavaliers defeated Orange 7-2 on Friday night at Orange High Field. It was Orange’s first home loss of the season, as well as its first loss to a non conference team. The Panthers end the year 25-3, its most wins in a season since 2013.

Southern Lee advanced to the Eastern Regional championship series for the first time in school history. They will face J.H. Rose in a best-of-three series this week.

Orange played without 2022 Central Carolina Pitcher of the Year Cross Clayton, who was limited to six pitching starts this season because of shoulder injuries. While the Panthers’ pitching depth was enough to overcome most opponents this year, the Cavaliers used speed and power to end Orange’s 18-game winning streak.

“They just kept the pressure on,” said Orange coach Jason Knapp after an emotional meeting with his players, most of whom emerged with tears in their eyes. “We had a couple of chances to push a couple of more across, and we just weren’t able to find the timely hit. They ran the bases extremely well. They hit the ball to all fields extremely well. They’re just a well coached, talented ball club.”

The result continued a pattern of one team raining on the other’s parade.While Southern Lee and Orange are separated by just over an hour, they’ve played six times since 2016. Each time, the road team has won. Last April, the Cavaliers edged Orange 6-5 in Hillsborough.

On that day, Southern Lee’s Jalen Jones proved to be a lethal force. He finished 3-for-4 with five putouts. On Friday night, he drove in the opening run off a single to left field to score Donathan.

Immediately, Orange came back in the bottom of the first when senior Jackson Berini, who concluded his career on an 11-game hitting streak, ripped a fastball to right centerfield, the deepest part of Orange’s ballpark where the fence is 402 feet from home plate. After Ryan Hench walked, Connor Nordan sent a flyball in shallow centerfield that Jones caught, but Berini scored on a sacrifice fly for the only tie of the game.

Southern Lee’s Michael Tate-Banks drew a leadoff walk in the second against Orange starter Coltin Hedrick. Caleb Waters lined a single to left field. With one out, Harrington loaded the bases when he reached on a dropped ball in right field. Donathon plated Tate-Banks on a sacrifice fly to left field, which was caught by senior Ryan Hench.

Southern Lee starter Pierce Bouwman, who earned the win to improve to 4-2, used power pitching to squelch any chance for Orange to even the game. In the fourth, the Panthers’ Cameron Guentensberger reached third base while Ryan Honeycutt got to second after each reached on base hits. With one out, Bouwman struck out Neo Best and Wyatt Hedrick to end the inning.

That was the last time Orange was within striking distance. Harrington drilled a leadoff homer over the left field fence in the fifth inning. Donation followed with another dinger that sailed in the vicinity of Harrington’s blast to make it 3-1 Cavaliers. With one out, Jones walked. Kale Scruggs sent a ground ball to second base, which Wyatt Hedrick tried to run down after he held the runner at second. Hedrick’s throw went over the head of Nordan at first base and nearly went into the Orange dugout, allowing Jones to score. After Cooper Moss singled to left field, Tate-Banks was intentionally walked to load the bases.

Josiah Gibbs replaced Coltin Hedrick as pitcher. Waters sent a liner back to the mound that Gibbs caught. Gibbs nearly doubled up Tate-Banks at first base, which would have ended the inning. The throw was errant and Tate-Banks got his hand on the bag just before Nordan could get his glove down. It proved to be a costly sequence for Orange after Spencer Stephens lined a double into right centerfield, scoring Scruggs and Julian McNeil, who was running for Moss. Berini threw out Tate-Banks at the plate, with Horton providing the tag, but the Cavaliers led 7-2.

“We had our five spot against Cape Fear,” Knapp said, referring to Tuesday’s playoff win in the round of 16 where Orange scored five in the first innings, the game’s only runs. “We faced quality arms tonight. Those two guys (Bouwman and Scruggs) were good. We knew that coming in. They were able to get outs when they needed them.”

In the sixth, senior Joey Pounds entered the game for Gibbs and got Orange out of a bases loaded jam with no outs. Pounds, in his final appearance, struck out Scruggs and got Moss to fly out to David Waitt in right.

There were echoes of the Triton miracle in the seventh inning. After Jones made an incredible catch at the centerfield wall with his back to the infield to retire Berini, Waitt reached on an error by Stephens. Hench lined a double that one-hopped the left field fence. After Nordan walked, Guentensberger lined a single to centerfield to score Waitt. Horton grounded into a season-ending double play when Bouwman, who was replaced as pitcher by Scruggs, fielded a grounder, stepped on second and rifled a throw to first.

This entire season, Orange’s nine seniors remembered the feeling of nearly beating perennial power J.H. Rose last year in Greenville. The Panthers led the Rampants 4-0 going into the sixth inning on May 17, 2022 before Rose rallied for four in the sixth and a walkoff homer in the seventh.

They wanted to face Rose again, this time in a best-of-three series. It feels weird for a squad that won 25 games and two conference championships to think about what might have been, but the looks on the seniors faces as they walked back to their dugout on Friday night were of a great team that were a few bad breaks away from being legendary locally.

“Hedrick, Gibbs and Pounds left it all out there,” Knapp said. “My hat is off to those guys. Who would have thought that Colin Hedrick would had the year that he had? Who would have thought that Josiah Gibbs would have had the year that he had? Joey Pounds, you talk about turning it on late. He had a great last month-and-a-half.”

Not only was this team the most successful one that Knapp ever had, it was his first senior class to last four years since he replaced Dean Dease as head coach in 2018. They survived a pandemic together, won three conference championships and made Knapp feel like Orange was his permanent home.

“You get a connection with teams and seniors,” Knapp said. “I think COVID brought us all together because we were left trying to figure out whether we were going to play in 2020. Then we don’t even see each other for months. The guys put together a spring league and I watched from the sidelines. I thought that brought us all together. It’s a great group of young men. Our offseason dedication makes it hurt a little more because all the work these guys put in as a team, even guys who play different sports, bring us closer together. They never gave up.”


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