Thrive and advance.

It’s a modification of a three-word phrase that famed N.C. State men’s college basketball coach Jim Valvano coined to describe the unpredictable, exhilarating but cruel nature of March Madness.

In softball, it’s just as unrelenting. One bad inning can sink a team’s season.

Orange softball coach Rachel Peel turned that catchphrase on its head as the Lady Panthers started play against C.B. Aycock in the 3A State Playoffs on Tuesday night. In its final postseason with senior pitcher Caden Robinson, Orange has reached the round of 16 in the state playoffs for the first time since they won the 3A State Championship in 2017.

On Friday night, Robinson struck out nine in a complete-game shutout for her 14th win of the season, propelling Orange past South Johnston 7-0 in Four Oaks. The Trojans, the Quad County Conference champions who rolled through conference play with a 14-0 record, had not been shutout all season. They end the year 20-2 after suffering its first loss since March 14.

“Everyone in the playoffs is saying ‘Survive and Advance,'” Peel said after the bus returned from a two-hour journey from Johnston County on Friday night. “I keep saying ‘Thrive and Advance.’ I don’t want to have that mindset of finality. I don’t want to have that mindset of this could be the last one. I want to leave it all the field and play the absolute best you can play. Just thrive at a high level.”

Orange has outscored its opening two playoff opponents 22-0. On Tuesday night, Orange routed Aycock, another Quad County opponent, 15-0 in Hillsborough.

On Friday, Orange played an error-free game and didn’t allow a Trojan beyond second base. Robinson threw her third shutout of the season and now has 370 career strikeouts. It’s believed that the school record is held by Kristina Givens, the pitcher from Orange’s state championship team, who finished with 378 from 2014-2017.

The game was scoreless going into the fourth inning when Allie Carden reached on a walk. Hayeligh Hammond sent a ground ball to Trojans shortstop Kaylee Cox, who underhanded the ball to second baseman Randi Deese, but Carden legged it out and slid into second safely. With Rhiley Crabtree at bat, Carden raced for third. The throw by catcher Reese Penny overshot third baseman Allison Barbour, leading to Carden and Hammond both scoring.

The Trojans engineered its biggest threat when Cox singled to left field and Ava Strickland walked with two out. Orange shortstop Sadie Cecil captured a line drive from Jaydin Wall to end the inning.

Katie Carden, Addison Guentensberger and Cecil all singled to open the fifth inning. Robinson threw a bases-loaded walk to score Guentensberger. Then Allie Carden followed with another bases-loaded walk, bringing in Cecil. With two out, Crabtree was hit by a pitch, allowing Katie Carden to increase Orange’s lead to 5-0. Senior Mia Leathers delivered the big blow with a hard grounder up the middle, scoring Robinson and Allie Carden to make it 7-0.

In Orange’s 15-0 win over C.B. Aycock on Tuesday night, Cecil set the proper tone, leading off with a solo home run that sailed over the centerfield fence, her fourth of the season. Allie Carden followed with a towering three-run homer that went over dead centerfield.

In the second, Katie Carden delivered a three-run homer that scored Guentensberger and Cecil. It was Katie Carden’s second home run of the season to increase the Orange lead to 7-0. Leathers drove in Allie Carden and Hammond with a two-run single.

Orange is now the last team remaining in the state playoffs from the Central Conference. Southern Alamance, the co-league champion, lost to Union Pines 8-7 in Graham on Friday night. Southern Nash, the #1 overall seed in the East Region, held off Eastern Alamance 2-1 in Bailey.

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