For the first time in years, it felt like a big football game at Auman Stadium.

On Thursday night, the Orange Middle School Chargers returned to glory after eight years without an Orange Person Athletic Conference championship.

Owen Phillipps caught a touchdown pass and finished with 113 yards from scrimmage, while 7th grader Amir Johnson rushed for a touchdown and recovered a fumble as Orange Middle pulled away from Culbreth 24-6 to win the OPAC Championship.

Quarterback Mason Stubbs created two touchdowns, one rushing and one passing, as the Chargers celebrated its first OPAC title since 2015.

It was a gratifying win for Orange head coach Jamie Bailey, who served as an assistant coach at Orange High for 17 years under head coaches Pat Moser and Van Smith, including a stint as defensive coordinator. Bailey completed his first year as Orange Middle’s head coach with a long-awaited championship.

“It’s a beautiful thing to bring this championship back to Orange County,” Bailey said. “Orange County football needed this.”

Playing 8-minute quarters, Orange Middle used a ground control offense to limit the Cougars to only five plays from scrimmage in the entire second half.

Leading 16-6 at halftime, the Chargers controlled the ball the entire third quarter, converting three 3rd downs and a fourth down. Stubbs threw to Wyatt Moore for a 12-yard gain on a 3rd-and-nine to advance the ball into Culbreth territory. After Jakai Torian gained six yards on a 3rd-and-8, Phillipps took the ball out of a wildcat formation, which Bailey installed last week, and ran around right end for 13 yards on 4th-and-2.

Going into the fourth quarter, on a 3rd-and-12, Phillips gained nine yards. Culbreth jumped offside on 4th-and-3 to move the chains again. Stubbs grinder ahead on a quarterback sneak and just inched over the goal line for a touchdown to conclude a 13-play, 60-yard drive that took 9:46 off the clock. Markus Thomas scored the two-point conversion on a jet sweep.

Johnson recovered two fumbles, including one on the opening play from scrimmage at the Cougars 48-yard line. On 4th-and-14, Brandon Robbins took the ball on a halfback option and chucked it ahead to Phillipps, who dashed into the heart of the end zone. Markus Thomas scored the 2-point conversion to put the Chargers ahead.

After Culbreth scored a touchdown following a Charger fumble, Orange scored a touchdown with 15 seconds remaining in the first half. Stubbs threw to Thomas on a 13-yard pass. Johnson added the 2-point conversion, then ended the half by sacking Culbreth’s quarterback.

The championship wasn’t merely a squad beating other teams from Roxboro, Chapel Hill and Carrboro for a trophy. It marks the climb out of a dark hole for football within northern Orange County that started during the pandemic and, in some respects, continues.

For the first time possibly ever, there was no junior varsity football team at Orange High School this year. Not long ago, Thursday night lights shined brightest at Orange. The junior varsity teams in the mid-2010s went years without losing a game.

In August 2021, after the entire middle school athletic calendar for the 2020-2021 academic year was canceled due to the pandemic, Bailey was riding to an Orange practice one day when he saw roughly 20 players at an Orange Middle workout.

He felt a chill go across his heart.

“It used to be there would be around 100 players at a Stanford practice,” Bailey said.

That’s what led him to start coaching at the middle school level.

“I wanted to get back to that because that’s what going to feed into high school football in Hillsborough,” Bailey said. That’s what we need back in this county.”

This year, the Orange Chargers suited up 45 players for a championship team.

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