The contrasts between Orange and Cedar Ridge’s baseball teams were apparent in their third and final matchup of the season on Wednesday night.
Orange, after winning the Central Carolina Conference regular season championship for the second straight year last week, is a team with nine seniors and eight starters back from last year. Cedar Ridge has just three seniors and three starters back from a squad that nearly eliminated its crosstown rival in the opening round of the state playoffs last May.
Even when Orange hasn’t been healthy, they’ve had the right combination of power, pitching and defensive prowess that has turned them into champions.
For all of Cedar Ridge’s inexperience, their grittiness has led them to a winning season, tied for 2nd in the CCC and back into the state playoffs for the second straight year.
The better sides of both teams were on display in the Central Carolina Conference Tournament semifinal on Wednesday night, but it was an Orange senior who has missed most of the season that had the biggest statement in several ways.
Ryan Hench launched a three-run homer in the sixth inning which proved to be the margin of victory as Orange held on to defeat Cedar Ridge 8-5 at Panther Field. Orange (21-2) will face Walter Williams in the CCC Tournament championship game on Thursday night at 6PM in Hillsborough.
“We had some walks and errors and that was uncharacteristic of us,” said Orange coach Jason Knapp. “We gave them a lot of free bases. They made us pay. If they don’t have one base running mistake out there in the fifth, it could have been a lot different. They’re a scrappy bunch and they’re going to give teams fits in the playoffs.”
Hench’s homer put Orange ahead 8-2, but Cedar Ridge’s scrappy nature wouldn’t let them go quietly. Sophomore Quinn Finnegan blasted a three-run homer to dead centerfield in the seventh. The Red Wolves rallied to put the tying run at the plate after B.J. Thornton and Grant McGuffey each drew walks. Orange junior Coltin Hedrick struck out Landon Dalehite and Ian McGuffey to end the game.
Orange, playing for the second time in two nights, struck for five runs in the second inning. After Ryan Horton and Cross Clayton drew walks. Neo Best laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance each runner 90 feet. Elijah Santos lofted a tricky soft pop-up that landed on the edge of the infield grass along second base that landed for a base hit to score Ty Walker, a courtesy runner for Horton. With David Waitt at bat, Clayton came in to score off a wild pitch to increase the Orange lead to 2-0. Waitt smashed a single straight up the middle to knock in Santos.
After Hench was hit by a pitch, Cameron Guentensberger smoked a worm burner up the third base line into the left field corner. Waitt jogged home while Hench sprinted in from first to increase Orange’s lead to 5-0.
Hench, making his fourth pitching start of the season after missing 12 games because of an injury suffered in Greensboro on March 8, earned his third win of the season.
Cedar Ridge fought back in the fifth. Nicholas Aitkin walked while Will Tippin was hit by a pitch, leading to Hedrick entering the game on the mound. Senior Issac Anderson took a 2-2 fastball and laid it into left field to load the bases. Mason Cates was hit on the hand to score Aitkin. Tippin scored when a Hedrick fastball got away from catcher Ryan Horton to the backstop.
Even after scoring two runs, Cedar Ridge still may have left some money on the table. With runners at second and third and the tying run at the plate with just one out, Finnegan lined out to Cross Clayton at second base. Clayton threw to Jackson Berini to double up Cates at second to end the inning.
The Red Wolves had a chance to draw closer in the sixth after a rare Orange miscue in the infield. Thornton drew a leadoff walk. Grant McGuffey sent a bouncing ball to second base, which appeared to be a potential double play. Somehow the ball bounced through Clayton’s arms and into centerfield. Thornton streaked over to third as the subsequent, errant throw from the outfield slammed against the fence beside the Cedar Ridge dugout.
With Thornton at third, McGuffey on second and no outs, Hedrick struck out three straight batters to retire the side and keep Orange ahead 5-2.
After Orange left the bases loaded in the fifth, they quickly mounted a threat in the sixth. Jackson Berini lined a single to left field, while Waitt walked. Hench belted his third homer of the season to left centerfield, which triggered an exchange of hostile words between the two benches after he trotted down the third base line.
Despite being down 8-2, the towel stayed in Cedar Ridge’s corner. Anderson led off with a single while Cates walked. Finnegan laid into the first pitch he saw from Hedrick and took it well over the centerfield wall.
Cedar Ridge was ranked #19 in the 3A East RPI rankings on Wednesday morning, making them a shoo-in for the state playoffs, which start Tuesday.