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FAYETTEVILLE–There was already enough going against Orange baseball before they even arrived in Cumberland County on Thursday night.

There was Mother Nature, which caused its third round state playoff game against Terry Sanford to be postponed twice. On Tuesday, the team had driven to Sanford when they got word to turn around because thunderstorms would prevent them from playing. Orange’s bus made it all the way to Fayetteville on Wednesday, only to find the tarp was already on the field with rain falling down. They had no choice but to drive back to Hillsborough and try again on Thursday.

Then again, the rain has been a problem for Orange since the regular season ended after clinching a share of the Central Conference regular season championship. The Panthers were supposed to face Southern Alamance in a one-game tiebreaker to determine the #1 seed from the Central at Southeast Alamance. If Orange had won, they would have earned the #2 seed in the East Region. That meant no trips to Fayetteville, or anyplace else, if they simply kept winning through the first four rounds.

But that playoff was rained out at Southeast Alamance High. The Patriots got the #1 seed because they swept third-place Williams while Orange split the two-game series with the Bulldogs. That handed Orange a #12 seed instead.

Once the game finally started on Thursday, Orange’s problems were Josh Hart and Brent Smith.

Hart, a junior, struck out eleven over six innings. Smith drove in two runs, including a solo bomb in the fourth inning as Terry Sanford (25-5) defeated Orange 4-0 to advance to the 3A State Quarterfinals.

It was the first time this season that Orange was shutout. The Panthers end the year 19-6.

There was immediately a sense of deja vu for an Orange team that went 15-1 at home this year, but was 4-5 on the road. In each of its road losses, the Panthers gave up runs in the first inning. Sanford’s Josh Mozingo and Ryan Seagroves each reached on infield singles, both hitting balls deep in the 5-6 hole where shortstop Oliver Van Tiem was put through the paces early on a busy night. Orange starter Cross Clayton uncorked a wild pitch to Mason Walker, moving each runner up 90 feet. Walker grounded out to second baseman Kayden Bradsher, scoring Mozingo.

Smith, a senior who has committed to Elon University, started a big night with an RBI single to left field, and the Bulldogs took a 2-0 lead that they would sit on for most of the night.

Though Orange was blanked, they actually had more threats than Sanford. In the second, Orange loaded the bases when Van Tiem was hit by a pitch. Garrett Sawyer grounded a cue shot to third baseman Ethan Nobles, who threw it away, advancing Van Tiem to third. Clayton walked to load the bases, but Elijah Santos pop-up to shallow centerfield was caught by Smith at second base.

Senior Ryan Honeycutt, in his final Orange game, reached on an infield single with two out in the third. Ryan Horton stroked an opposite field liner that landed in front of Walker in right field. Horton and Henry Hoffman, running for Horton, advanced to second and third following a wild pitch. With two out, Hart got a strike out to end the threat.

After the bad start, Orange’s defense settled down. Clayton retired eight straight batters. A surprise bunt attempt by Mozingo to lead off the third was handled sublimely by third baseman Wyatt Hedrick, who threw him out at first. Sanford head coach Sam Guy was so impressed, he bumped fists with Hedrick while coaching third base.

It was Smith who almost single-handily added Sanford’s remaining insurance runs. He started the fourth by launching an 0-1 fastball over the left field wall, and over the adjacent team batting cage with an interlocking “TS” on the front, as well, to increase the Bulldogs lead to 3-0. In the sixth, Smith led off with a single, advanced to second on a groundout, went to third on a wild pitch, and scored off a sacrifice fly from catcher Willis Noon.

Orange had more opportunities. Horton singled to right field to lead off the sixth. Hedrick laid down a sacrifice bunt, but Hart threw the ball away. Hedrick, who collided with the first baseman, remained at first. With one out, Hart continued to hit the right corner of the strike zone like a punching bag, setting down Sawyer and Santos in order to squelch the threat.

Santos singled to left to open the seventh. Immediately, Guy replaced Hart with reliever Jack Reaves. Kayden Bradsher got aboard on an infield hit. Honeycutt sent a dangerous floater to the right that would have loaded the bases if it fell. But once again, Smith was there to chase it down. Horton’s flew out to Benny Whiteaker to end the game.

There were tears and hugs, as you would expect in the postgame in the Orange dugout. It was also the end of an prominent chapter of Orange baseball. Eight seniors who teamed together to win four consecutive conference championships played their final game together.

Cameron Guentensberger, the senior centerfielder, could even boast about being in the starting lineup when Orange beat Terry Sanford in the 2nd round of the state playoffs in 2022. It was head coach Jason Knapp’s most successful class of his six-year tenure.

Together, they dominated the Central Conference for the past three years and compiled a home record of 45-7.

It’s something that not even Mother Nature can take away from them.

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