On Monday night, the Orange baseball team had its biggest game since 2016, when they faced Topsail in the 3A state quarterfinals.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, East Chapel Hill was in its biggest game since playing for the 2003 3A State Championship. The Wildcats weren’t only due, they were hungrier.
Pounding out a season-high 16 hits, the Wildcats defeated Orange 13-6 on the Panthers’ senior night in Hillsborough. East (13-7, 10-1 in the Big 8 Conference) officially captured the Big 8 Championship on Wednesday night when they defeated Cedar Ridge 17-7 at Red Wolves Territory.
Orange (13-5, 11-3) would have clinched first place in the Big 8 and a first-round home game in the state playoffs with a win. Instead, the Panthers are only assured of making the postseason after yielding the most runs in a game since last season’s 15-3 loss to Chapel Hill.
“They hit it all over the ballpark tonight,” said Orange Coach Jason Knapp. “If we were playing up, they hit it over our head. If we played back, they hit it in front of us. It was just one thing after another. Tip your cap to them. They came to play tonight.”
East bore little resemblance to the team that squeezed out two measly hits, none after the first inning, in its original meeting with Orange on March 12, a 4-2 Panther victory which was also the conference opener.
On Monday, every Wildcat had a base hit as East scored in each of the final six innings, despite appearances by Orange’s top three pitchers. It was East’s tenth consecutive conference victory.
“Their whole order was different,” Knapp said. “They had different kids hitting in different spots. They had new kids in there that I didn’t have a scouting report on. They’ve obviously grown as a team and are rolling right now.”
When East wasn’t getting base hits, Orange gave up plenty of free bases, committing five errors and allowing four walks. While not overpowering, East pitcher C.J. DiBenedetto earned the win by allowing ten hits and six runs in six innings. DiBenedetto also reached base three times, including a triple to centerfield in the seventh, allowing courtesy runner Tommy Smigla to score twice.
Orange’s only lead came in the second inning when Cooper Hench led off the frame with a solo blast to the porch in left field to tie the game at 1-1. Designated hitter Will Walker lined the next pitch from DiBenedetto to centerfield, and later scored off a two-out single to left by junior shortstop Joey Berini.
East immediately erased that deficit when shortstop Tyler Mylers drilled a two-run homer to centerfield to start a five-run third inning. DiBenedetto drew a walk to end Orange starter Luke Riley’s stint. Evan Harris greeted reliever Jordan Underwood with a double off the left field wall. DiBenedetto and Harris scored off a throwing error. Bryce Jeske doubled down the left field line to plate Briley and push East’s lead to 6-2.
Orange made a charge in the bottom of the inning when right fielder Colin Guentensberger doubled to left field to score Walker and Hench. But the Wildcats grabbed the runs right back when DiBenedetto reached on an error and scored off a double to left field by Harris.
Tyler Petterson launched a fastball to the deepest part of the park to bring in Harris. Jeske put a cap on a dominant night by slamming a three-run homer over the right field wall in the top of the sixth.
Jeske finished 3-for-4 with 4 RBI. Harris went 3-for-5 with three doubles and two RBIs.
Orange’s Joey Berini, who leads the team with 30 hits, finished 3-for-4 with a triple. Hench went 2-for-4.
While Orange will make the state playoffs, they may have to play again on Friday to earn the #2 seed from the Big 8 Conference. On Thursday night, Northwood faces Chapel Hill. If the Chargers win, they will tie the Panthers for 2nd place. The two teams split their regular season game.
As of Thursday morning, Orange's MaxPreps ranking is #39, the highest among Big 8 teams.