Jeff Hamlin

No Gray Area: Crabtree scores 7 goals, Kruse dishes six assists, Orange lacrosse wins Eastern Regional title with 14-9 win over Croatan

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.




Orange lacrosse’s Connor Kruse & Matthew Macneir discuss winning regional championship

The Orange Panthers lacrosse team are the 3A/2A/1A Eastern Regional champions. On Monday night, the Panthers got six goals from Grey Crabtree to defeat Croatan 14-9 in front of a raucous crowd at Auman Stadium. In his final game in Hillsborough, senior Connor Kruse racked up six assists, including four in the third quarter. Sophomore Matthew Macneir earned 14 faceoff wins in a rugged, physical game there the Panthers took control early in the second quarter with four consecutive goals. Kruse started the run when he found Brandon Williams on the doorstep with 3:56 remaining in the first quarter. Macneir went against several Croatan faceoff men throughout the night, but maintained possession thanks to midfield wingers Alden Cathey and Josh Crabtree. Kruse now has 209 this season, setting a new single-season school record. It was an emotional night for Kruse and his senior teammates, who played its final game in Hillsborough. But it wasn’t their last game in an Orange uniform. The Panthers will face either Lake Norman Charter or Bishop McGuinness for the 3A/2A/1A State Championship at Durham County Stadium on either Friday or Saturday. Orange will be just the second team from Hillsborough to play for a state championship in lacrosse. The 2017 Cedar Ridge Red Wolves won the 3A/2A/1A Eastern Regional Championship.

Green Eggs and Hamlin: Orange fans need to pack Auman Stadium tonight

Tonight, the Orange lacrosse team will play for its first regional championship inside Auman Stadium in Hillsborough.

And you should be there.

Yes, you.

You should be there because of Connor Kruse, the all-time leading scorer in Orange lacrosse history. It will be his final game in Hillsborough, win or lose. He has scored 532 points since he started playing regularly as a freshman, which was Orange’s first conference championship team through the messy, unorganized thrones of the 2021 pandemic. In elementary school, Kruse knew exactly what his future would be.


While he played basketball and soccer growing up, he spent most weekends traveling around North Carolina playing on the diamond. On various travel teams, he was a teammate with a number of current Orange baseball players who also have won four conference championships. At around 11 years old, Kruse yearned for something with more action. He asked for a lacrosse goal as a birthday gift and that’s when he found his passion for the sport. Next year, he’ll play for Lenoir-Rhyne, which won the Division II National Championship last year.

You should be there because of the Orange lacrosse senior class. Together, they have amassed a record of 66-12 over the last four years, winning four conference championships. They have grown up together, not just in lacrosse but in life.

You should go because of Katie Wolter. For four years, she has been a female goalkeeper playing against men. She moved to Hillsborough with her family at the age of 2. She was in preschool with Josh Cowan, who has scored 28 goals this year. Katie and Josh met Alden Cathey when they were in kindergarten. In 5th grade, a boy named Sascha Van Praag from the Netherlands came to America and joined a class that included Kruse, Josh Merrill, and Cowan. Together, they would change the fate of Orange lacrosse from being just another spring sport in baseball’s shadow to another championship team.

Her brother, Tyson, played goalkeeper at Orange and is now an assistant coach when he isn’t at mosh pits during Mastodon concerts. Katie had chances to play women’s lacrosse at various private schools. Instead, she opted to stay with her friends and the community her brothers have been a part of. And a community that has embraced her.

You should be there because of Sascha Van Praag, who stops at nothing on defense. When he first showed up at practice, a lanky 6-foot-5 freshman, Orange head coach Chandler Zirkle and JV coach Zach Wright couldn’t find a uniform fast enough for him.

The only thing that matches his intensity on the field is his singing off of it.

In March, following an intense overtime win over Pinecrest in Pinehurst, Van Praag wasn’t drained despite a game that featured 25 penalties. He performed various rap songs on the bus to the amusement of his teammates.

You should be there because of the Zirkle family. They have truly lived for lacrosse. The first time I ever saw Orange head coach Chandler Zirkle, he was a middle school student in 2005. He stood on the sidelines as his father, then-East Chapel Hill coach Franklin Zirkle, faced off against Chapel Hill. It was a rivalry that attracted over 1,000 fans that night. The Tigers won in overtime at Wildcats Stadium and his father told his son to get the loose balls off the field before the handshake line. I was a reporter for the now-defunct Chapel Hill News. Franklin Zirkle’s first quote after the tough loss was “We’re going to see these guys again.”

He was right.

A month later, East Chapel Hill beat Chapel Hill 10-1 at SAS Stadium (now WakeMed Soccer Park) in Cary to win the North Carolina Lacrosse Coaches 4A State Championship, the first time I ever did play-by-play for lacrosse on WCHL-AM. Since then, lacrosse has been a regular part of my spring sports viewing because of the Zirkle family. Chandler, his brother Hartford and his family have always been polite and patient with me as a total novice turned into a fan. There weren’t many good things to come from my time at WCHL, but my friendship with the Zirkle family was one of them.

You should be there because it may be the final athletic event at Orange High this year. This has been among the best of times for Orange athletics and the Class of 2024 has left an indelible mark in school history. Orange athletics has won nine conference championships this year. It could easily be ten. Connor Kruse’s cousin, Katie Belle Sikes, won three state championships in swimming this year. She will be there tonight.

And you should be, too.

Faceoff is at 6PM against Croatan.

Don’t be late.


Third time the charm? Kruse scores five goals, Cowan adds four as Orange lacrosse routs Carrboro 21-11, hosts Regional title game Monday

The Orange lacrosse team’s road to hosting a third straight 3A/2A/1A Eastern Regional championship game didn’t start in February, when they defeated 4A foe Apex in the season-opener.

It didn’t start when practice got underway last winter. Or during last summer with players journeying across the Mid-Atlantic Region playing for assorted travel teams, like the Carolina Hilltoppers.

It started in the Orange locker room at the football fieldhouse on May 16, 2023. That’s when a subdued group gathered one final time for the season moments after Northwood stunned Orange 10-8 to win the Eastern Regional Championship.

Going into that game, the Chargers had lost to the Panthers five straight times. Many around the program had felt last year would be the time Orange would finally reach the state championship game after First Flight defeated Orange in the 2022 regional title game, also in Hillsborough.

But it wasn’t to be.

Orange coach Chandler Zirkle told his team that many of his most instrumental players would be back in 2024, though that was little comfort to 2023 seniors like Joe Cady, Nick Cardone and Josiah Tisdale.

One year later, Orange lacrosse has put together its most dominant season in program history. And they will hope that Monday night will be the one so many around the program have waited for.

Neither the Carrboro Jaguars not a 40-minute rain delay did much to hamper the Panthers in the State Quarterfinals on Friday night in Hillsborough. Orange scored goals on eight of its first eleven shots to burst out to an 8-3 lead. The Panthers (23-1) would go on to rout the Jaguars 21-10 to advance to the 3A/2A/1A Eastern Regional Championship game, which will be held at Auman Stadium on Monday night at 6PM.

Orange will face Croatan for the regional title. The Cougars defeated First Flight 15-7 in Newport on Saturday.

Orange senior Connor Kruse, the all-time leading scorer in program history, finished with five goals and three assists, adding on to his career total with 532 career points. Senior Josh Cowan came away with four goals while junior Gray Crabtree, senior Josh Crabtree, and sophomore Brandon Williams all finished with hat tricks.

Carrboro senior A.J. Pease scored four goals in his final game. The Jaguars end the season 10-7.

Orange opened the game with four goals in the first 3:08. The Panthers outshot the Jaguars 22-14 in the first half and controlled early possession thanks to faceoff guru Matthew Macneir. Gray Crabtree opened with the first two goals, the second assisted by sophomore Brett Clark. Josh Crabtree added two more goals, both unassisted, within a span of 28 seconds to put Orange ahead 4-0, forcing a Jaguars timeout.

Pease and Tyler Pease scored back-to-back markers for the Jaguars to trim its deficit to 4-2, but Orange concluded the first quarter with a 4-1 run. Kruse took a centering pass from Clark for his first goal in a man-up situation after Carrboro’s Leland Robinson was called for a slash. Cowan added another man advantage goal following an offsides penalty, assisted by Josh Crabtree. Cowan ended the first quarter with a short dump shot off a pass from Kruse to put the Panthers ahead 8-3.

Kruse assisted on another goal scored by Clark with 8:03 remaining in the first half, which led to a 40-minute rain delay after a shower passed through the area. Upon resumption, Kruse added another goal to make it 11-3 Orange. A.J. Pease and Tobi Adroju scored back-to-back for Carrboro to get the deficit down to 11-5, but tallies by Kruse and Gray Crabtree ended the half.

Carrboro’s Charlie Walsh opened the second half with a pair of markers for the Red Wolves, but Orange finished the third quarter with four straight goals scored by Williams, Jay Parker, Josh Crabtree and Josh Cowan.

Senior goalkeeper Katie Wolter earned her 16th win of the season, making five saves. Freshman Jackson Runkle finished out the game between the pipes.

Robinson tosses second shutout of state playoffs, Leathers drives in two as Orange softball blanks South Johnston 7-0 to advance to 3rd round

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.

A New Life–Gibbs earns 18th career win, Hedrick drives in 7 runs to help Orange baseball rout Eastern Alamance 19-1 in state playoffs

For most of Tuesday night, some of the Orange baseball seniors didn’t think they would reach the second round of the state playoffs, much less host another home game.

After a miraculous rally against Cedar Ridge, the Panthers didn’t leave drama against Eastern Alamance on Friday night.

The Panthers exploded for seven runs in the first inning, keyed by a two-run single by Wyatt Hedrick, and easily defeated the Eagles 19-1 in five innings to advance to the Round of 16 in the 3A State Playoffs on Friday night. Orange (19-5) will travel to Terry Sanford for the third round on Tuesday. The Bulldogs hammered Walter Williams 19-3 in Fayetteville Friday night.

Senior pitcher Josiah Gibbs tossed a five-inning complete game, surrendering only two hits for his 18th career win. Gibbs improved to 8-0 with a 2.07 ERA.

It was Orange’s third run-rule win of the season, its second against the Eagles in ten days. Last week, Orange beat the Eagles 11-0 where Cross Clayton won his 20th career game.

“Gibbs commanded the strike zone well,” said Orange coach Jason Knapp. When you put seven runs in the bottom of the first, you know that a kid is going to pitch to contract. He’s not going to give up a bunch of walks.”

On the drama scale, it was the polar opposite of Orange’s playoff opener against Cedar Ridge on Tuesday. The Panthers were down four runs in the seventh inning with the bases empty and two outs before pulling off a stunning rally capped by Ryan Honeycutt’s three-run homer to win 7-4.

“I told the team it was like a batter who pops a ball up in foul ground, and the fielder drops it,” Knapp said. “Then that batter gets a new life. That’s what we got. We got a new life after that rally on Tuesday. We know that and we’re playing with house money. So the guys were a lot looser tonight. They’re not scared of the end.”

Facing Eastern Alamance (9-16) starter Conner Horner, Orange’s first six batters reached base and eventually scored. With the bases loaded, Ryan Horton blooped a curveball that fell down between three fielders, bringing in Cameron Guentensberger. Oliver Van Tiem tapped a fastball in front of the plate where Horner slipped on the wet grass that had been soaked from a pregame shower, delaying the game for 40 minutes.  Kayden Bradsher came in to score.

Wyatt Hedrick drove in two runs when he sent a high fly ball off the 2008 2A State Championship banner in right field to score Honeycutt and Henry Hoffman, running for Horton. Cross Clayton drove a fastball to the 395-foot ally in right centerfield to score Van Tiem. Elijah Santos lined a single up the middle to score Hedrick. In his second plate appearance of the inning, Guentensberger plated Clayton off a sacrifice fly to Tyler Westbrooks.

Eastern catcher Kasen McGinnis whacked a solo home run to left field to start the second inning, scoring the Eagles only run.

Hedrick blooped a double down the left field line to score Hoffman in the second to increase Orange’s lead to 8-1. In the third, Hedrick knocked in Honeycutt and Van Tiem with a line drive to left field.

Orange sent 14 batters to the plate in the fourth inning, where they scored nine runs. It included Hedrick driving in two more runs with a liner to right and a three-run home run by Clayton to left field.

Hedrick finished 4-for-4 with seven RBIs and two runs scored. Horton was 4-for-4, allowing Hoffman to score three times. Clayton was 3-for-4 with four RBIs. Guentensberger scored three runs and was 2-for-3. Every Panther in the starting lineup scored a run.