In one afternoon, the Orange volleyball team ensured its most successful season in 14 years, set up a fourth battle against its crosstown archival and did something that the Lady Panther program hasn’t accomplished in a decade.
That’s a lot to absorb in a short amount of time. Then again, too many things going on at once has been the theme of Orange’s season.
On Saturday afternoon, Orange swept Wilson Fike 3-0 on scores of 25-14, 25-17 and 25-22 at Panthers’ Gymnasium in the opening round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3A State Playoffs. The Lady Panthers (19-10), the #15 seed that finished second in the Central Carolina Conference, advanced to the second round to face Cedar Ridge on Tuesday night at Red Wolves Gymnasium.
After Cedar Ridge swept the regular season series from Orange, the Red Wolves defeated the Lady Panthers 3-1 in the Central Carolina Conference Tournament championship match last Wednesday. While Orange lost, they did end Cedar Ridge’s 62-set winning streak after taking the third frame.
Last year, Orange defeated West Johnston in the opening round of the state playoffs. It’s the first time since 2011-2012 that the Lady Panthers have won state playoff matches in consecutive years.
The irony of Orange’s most successful season in 14 years is that, for much of the summer, no one was sure who would lead the program once August rolled around.
Coach Kelly Young wasn’t planning on returning for a fifth season. At the end of the 2021-22 academic year, Young left Orange to teach at Eno River Academy. Originally, she wanted to join the Bobcats’ staff as an assistant coach.
“My husband and I want to expand our family,” Young said during an interview at the beginning of the year. “I love coaching but it gets tough to start choosing between your kids and your school babies.”
Young worked Orange’s summer camp in July thinking it would be her final duties with the program that she played in during the late 2000s. Yet finding a successor to Young became harder and harder as the season approached.
“(Orange Athletic Director Mike) McCauley came up to me and said ‘It’s either going to be you or me,'” Young said. “I was like “OK.” So (assistant coach) Rachel (Nash) said ‘If you do it, I’ll do it one more year.’ We have so much good talent, we couldn’t let them go without and coach. These are my girls.”
It’s a team of diverse personalities and experience. Outside hitter Allie Wilkerson (who has committed to Division III Averett University), middle blocker Erin Jordan-Cornell, setter Caitlin Carden and libero Lilly Jones have played alongside starters learning on the job all year. Freshman Aubrey Jordan, who is second on the team in kills, has been a regular starter. Setter Katie Silcott, another freshman, gets regular playing time amid a rotation that goes 12-players deep.
As Orange volleyball prepares for transition in various ways, some of the seniors have embraced being mentors for the younger players. In the case of Jordan-Cornell, she proudly embraces the role of being “a mama bear.”
In another sense, so has Wilkerson. Her 6-foot-2 younger sister, Ava, is another freshman who plays routinely.
“All of the seniors are leaders in their own way,” Young said. “We only named three captains this year, but honestly all of the seniors bring something different to the table. They’re all so different in their personalities, it’s a nice mesh. Erin is like a mama bear. Allie is like your cheerleader. Kaitlin is more reserved. Cameryn (Stewart) is your super encouraging one. She’s super positive. Ashlyn Hoffman is the feisty one. Ashlyn Davis is a cheerer. Lily Smith is a little sarcastic. They’re all fun.”
While Orange trailed Cedar Ridge by two sets last week in the conference tournament championship match, the Lady Panthers’ victory in the third set felt like a breakthrough. For starters, Orange nearly won the opening set in its first matchup against the Red Wolves on September 6. They had four set points against the Red Wolves before finally falling 30-28. Cedar Ridge took the third set 25-23. It was easily the Red Wolves’ closest match in conference play.
Most outside observers would give Orange a puncher’s chance to defeat the defending 3A State Champions on Tuesday night and end the run of the most accomplished senior class in Red Wolves’ team history, regardless of sport.
But it’s now a chance that the Lady Panthers have given themselves.