Photo by Carly Williams 

The goalkeeper was a native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada who has been playing lacrosse for two years.

One of the defensmen was a native of the Netherlands who arrived in America when he was in fifth grade. The other defensman was a member of two regional championship teams in cross country.

The top scorer had a baseball career in mind ten years ago, but when he transitioned to his best sport, he would turn on the floodlights in the backyard of his home shooting at his net after games.

The head coach was a midfielder at East Chapel Hill a decade ago who played in a state championship game.

Now, Chandler Zirkle will be coaching in one.

The broad, spicy ingredients that blend into the melting pot that is Orange lacrosse finally got what it had been denied the past three years.

A regional championship.

In its final home game of the most successful season in school history, junior Gray Crabtree tied his career-high with seven goals while Connor Kruse racked up six assists as Orange defeated Croatan 14-9 to win the 3A/2A/1A Eastern Regional Championship in front of a raucous crowd at Auman Stadium. Orange (23-1) will meet the winner of Lake Norman Charter/Bishop McGuinness for the State Championship at Durham County Stadium on either Friday or Saturday night.

Goalkeeper Parker Christie-Pohl, who grew up playing hockey in Canada, made ten saves to earn the win. Fittingly, senior Katie Wolter relieved Christie-Pohl in the final minutes in her final game as Orange played keep away to run out the clock.

Orange’s third straight year hosting the regional championship game proved to be the charm. Last year, Orange lost to Northwood, a conference rival they had defeated twice before in the regular season. In 2022, First Flight defeated the Panthers 13-7.

“We could have won both of those games,” Zirkle said afterwards as he held his newborn son, Leon. “I think this is a very mature team. We have some phenomenal leaders. Our captains, Katie, Josh, Connor, Alden and Sascha have just been a phenomenal all year. It’s been a really cool group.”

As Zirkle spoke after the game, the Orange fans lined up to applaud the players as they walked off with a regional championship trophy in hand.

Unlike the previous two regional title games, Orange summoned momentum early using a ten-man ride that the Cougars just couldn’t puncture consistently. Though Croatan’s Dain Sparks scored the initial goal off a pass from Ethan Eifert, Orange’s defensive unit of Netherlands-native Sascha Van Praag, Alden Cathey and Aidan Monteith kept the Cougars from getting into a rhythm offensively,.

Crabtree immediately answered Sparks goal off a pass from sophomore Brett Clark. Then Clark assisted on a goal from fellow sophomore Brett Clark to put Orange ahead, a lead the Panthers wouldn’t lose. Kruse’s only goal came off a powerful sidearm shot from 15 yards away that buzzed over the shoulder of Croatan goalkeeper Graham Myers.

Sparks added his second goal on the doorstep off a perfect feed from Matej Roth with 5:05 remaining in the first quarter, but the Cougars wouldn’t score again for 12 minutes and 32 seconds.

Roth entered the game with 37 goals, second only to Sparks’ 55. Van Praag, who was primarily matched up on Roth, held him to two goals.

Orange reeled off four straight goals bridging between the first and second quarters to increase its lead to 7-2. Williams fired in a sidearm shot from five yards away off a pass from Kruse. Then Crabtree added an unassisted tally to open the second quarter. Kruse found Clark in front of the crease to end a spree of three Orange goals in a span of 1:58. The Cougars held the Panthers scoreless in the final 5:32 of the first half to keep things apprehensive at halftime. Sparks and Drew Degeorge added goals late in the second quarter to decrease Orange’s lead to 7-4.

Orange put the game away by scoring four goals in a span of 2:32 in the third quarter. After Croatan’s David Contreras was penalized for slashing, Clark dumped in a quick overhead shot from another feed from Kruse. Following a faceoff win by Matthew Macneir, Josh Crabtree unloaded a blazing sidearm shot from 19 yards that caught nothing but nylon. Just 19 seconds later, Clark score again off a pass from Kruse from behind the net. Grey Crabtree added another goal in transition after Cathey took a pass from Monteith to increase the Orange lead to 11-4.

The Cougars’ best run game when they reeled off three straight goals, two of them scored off Roth on fast break chances. Grey Crabtree restored order with consecutive tallies, naturally both assisted by Kruse,.

As the final horn sounded and Orange players tossed their sticks into the air in triumph, among the first people to hold up the regional championship trophy was John Bianco, who held it up along the track in front of a cheering group of fans. He was the second head coach in Orange lacrosse history, a time that wasn’t the most glamorous in program history.

But his time has arrived. So has Orange lacrosse.




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