The Orange softball team didn’t need any more incentive going into Friday night.
It was the second round of the 3A State Playoffs against D.H. Conley, the #1 ranked team in 3A softball, according to MaxPreps.com. The Lady Panthers had two seniors, Olivia Ruff and Hayley Funk, who had won a state championship just two years ago. They deserved to see another day instead of packing up their uniforms on Tuesday.
Then a parent picked up the local Greenville newspaper on the way to the game.
In so many words, a writer predicted a Viking “blowout” over the Panthers to cruise into the third round.
That paper found its way to an Orange assistant coach, who informed the rest of the team.
She might as well have waved a red cape in front of a bull.
While Orange’s season ended on Friday night, they could say beyond a shadow of a doubt that they stood toe-to-toe with the state’s best, and very nearly ended their season.
Conley (23-1) defeated Orange 2-1 in eight innings to advance into the third round of the state playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. It was the least amount of runs the Vikings scored this season.
Orange finished the season 14-7, co-champions of the Big 8 Conference.
Afterwards, Conley head coach Wayne Deans walked over to the somber Orange huddle, filled with tears and hugs, to tell the Lady Panthers that they were the best team his Vikings had faced all year.
Orange Coach Henry Horn looks back on the season with a combination of optimism and regret. His battery, comprised of freshmen Gracie Walker and catcher Lauren Jackson, will return next season. They will only lose two starters.
At the same time, Orange went only 1-5 against nonconference opponents in a challenging slate that included games against Eastern Alamance, Roxboro Community School and Person. All three of those teams reached the second round of their respective playoff runs.
Nonetheless, Orange went from battling to finish in third place in the Big 8 in 2018 to being in a tiebreaker for first earlier this month.
“I think we still had success to a certain degree,” Horn said. “We’re going to come back next year with five seniors. We’re going to be a more established team as far as chemistry. Buying into doing the little things is the hardest thing to sell with the kids. But going from last year to this year, we certainly had more success.”
While Orange was held to one hit by Conley hurler Lauren Wiles, they did score the first run in the second inning. Funk lined a double to right field to lead off. Grace Andrews moved Bartlett to third with a sacrifice bunt. Maddie Bartlett knocked in Funk with a sacrifice fly to centerfield.
Conley put a runner at second base in the second, third and fourth innings, but Walker kept them from scoring. Conley went down in order in the fifth inning, and the Lady Panthers were six outs away from pulling the upset.
The Vikings broke through in the sixth when Alexis Phillips drew a leadoff walk. Madison Bowers, who attempted to bunt Phillips over, reached on an error. Orange freshman catcher Lauren Jackson threw out Phillips trying to steal third, but freshman Anna Sawyer lined a 3-2 pitch to centerfield to knock in Bowers and tie the game.
In the final two innings, Andrews was the only Lady Panther to reach after being hit by a pitch in the seventh inning. Bartlett ended the inning with a pop-out to second base.
In the top of the eighth inning, Orange went down in order.
Olivia Knight led off the Viking eighth by reaching on an error. Knight remained at first base with two outs. Sawyer ripped a two-out single to left field that reached the fence. Knight circled the bases for the game-winning run.
Wiles, who improved to 11-0, struck out 11 over eight innings.
“I wanted to go deeper in the playoffs,” Horn said. “I felt like we were capable of going into the third or fourth round. We just never hit on all cylinders like I thought we should. I thought we had a very talented team. Gracie Walker is really going to be good as a pitcher. I think the future is bright for her to be a dominant pitcher over the next three years.”