After battling neck-and-neck for much of the season in the Central Conference standings, Orange and Cedar Ridge faced off the evening of May 11 in the first round of the NCHSAA 3A state baseball playoffs. Orange, the Central Conference regular season champions, swept the Red Wolves by dominating scores of 13-5 and 16-0 on the evenings of April 19 and April 21. Those victories helped propel Orange to the league title, along with the No. 8 seeding in the East Region of the state playoffs.
Cedar Ridge, who earned the No. 25 seed in the East Region, proved in the third match between the two schools that it was not afraid of the Panthers, and the two teams battled inning-for-inning in a fight for survival.
The Red Wolves carried a 2-1 lead over Orange into the bottom of the seventh and were just two outs away from an upset victory, but the Panthers found the will to tie the game and force extra innings. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Orange got a one-out line drive into center field by Davis Horton, which drove home Conner Funk for a thrilling 3-2 OHS triumph, which advanced the Panthers to the second round.
Cedar Ridge opened the game hot offensively by scoring runs in the top of the first and the top of the third, but the Orange pitching staff settled down and held the Red Wolves off the scoreboard the rest of the way. After tying the game 1-1 in the bottom of the second, the Panthers were held scoreless until the seventh inning, when they managed to tie the game and force extra innings, leading up to Horton’s late-game heroics.
CRHS drew first blood in the top of the first off Orange starting pitcher Ryan Hench, as Aidan Mcallister led off the game with a line drive base hit to left field. After advancing to second on a fielder’s choice off the bat of B.J. Thornton to Orange third baseman Neo Best, Mcallister reached third base on a passed ball. Cristian Macias hit a ground ball to OHS shortstop Joey Berini, who sacrificed the run and made the play at first base. In a classic case of manufacturing a run, the Red Wolves had taken an early 1-0 lead.
After going down with just one hit and one baserunner in the bottom of the first, Orange tied things up in the second off Cedar Ridge starting pitcher Quinn Finnegan. Cameron Guentensberger led off the inning by getting hit by a pitch, which was followed by a base hit up the middle off the bat of Connor Nordan. Davis Horton followed for the Panthers and hit a drive to center field that was caught by Cedar Ridge center fielder Garrett Ray, which allowed Guentensberger to tag up and advance to third. OHS tied the game on a single on a fly ball to right field off the bat of Codey Snipes, which scored Guentensberger. Nordan was gunned down trying to advance to second base, and the game went into the third inning with the score knotted up at 1-1.
Cedar Ridge reclaimed the lead on a leadoff single to center field by Nick Nolan, followed by a sacrifice off the bat of Braedyn Jacobson that advanced Nolan to second. Aidan McAllister was hit by a pitch, and B.J. Thornton came up and singled to left field, scoring Nolan for a 2-1 Cedar Ridge advantage.
The visitors held that slim 2-1 advantage all the way down to the bottom of the seventh. Staring down a stunning upset, Orange’s bats finally woke up and produced a vital run to extend the season. David Waitt led things off with a fly ball, reaching on an error by the Red Wolves. Ryan Hench coaxed a walk off a tiring Quinn Finnegan, putting the tying and go-ahead runs on base for the Panthers.
After Cedar Ridge replaced Finnegan on the mound with B.J. Thornton, Orange’s Connor Funk grounded to shortstop, resulting in a fielder’s choice. Waitt advanced to third on the play, while the Red Wolves got the first out of the inning. Up stepped Guentensberger, who bunted in the direction of first base. The Red Wolves were unable to get Guentensberger out at first, while Waitt scored the crucial tying run, and Funk advanced to second.
Orange had two chances to secure a dramatic walk-off victory in the bottom of the seventh, but Thornton struck out Jared Weaver looking, and then got Davis Horton to fly out to center field, which sent the game into the eighth inning tied, 2-2.
Cedar Ridge got two on in the eighth before Cross Clayton set down the Red Wolves, and Thornton put down Orange in the bottom of the eighth with no hits and one baserunner. CRHS went down in order in the top of the ninth on a strikeout and a pair of groundouts, which led up to Orange’s thrilling walk-off winner in the bottom of the ninth.
After Hench led off the inning with a groundout to third base, Thornton coaxed Conner Funk into another infield groundout. But this one wouldn’t go Cedar Ridge’s way, as Funk reached first on an error. Guentensberger came back to the plate and ripped a single to right field, which moved Funk, the winning run, to second.
After intentionally walking Jared Weaver, which loaded the bases with one out, Horton advanced to the plate and lined the single into center field that won the ballgame. The Orange players raced out of the home dugout and enveloped Horton following his game-winning hit. The Panthers improved to 17-8 with the win, while Cedar Ridge finished its second with a record of 13-11.
Advancing to the second round of the state playoffs, the Panthers hosted No. 9 seed Terry Sanford High of Fayetteville on Thursday night. The game was initially scheduled for Friday evening, but the teams moved up the game one night due to the potential for stormy weather.
Orange broke out to an early 4-0 lead over Terry Sanford, and withstood a rally by the visiting Bulldogs for three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to break a 5-5 tie and claim an 8-5 victory, which propelled the Panthers into the third round. OHS has a game scheduled against J.H. Rose, the No. 1 overall seed in the East Region, on the road in Greensville the evening of Tuesday, May 17.
After Cross Clayton set the Bulldogs down in order in the top of the first inning, the Panthers scored two quick runs in the bottom of the first. After Jackson Berini led off the Panthers with a single into center field, Ryan Hench belted a home run deep over the left field fence. Just like that, Orange held a 2-0 lead.
Clayton set Terry Sanford down again in order in the bottom of the second, and the Panthers rapidly increased their early advantage. Connor Nordan led off with a walk, and Davis Horton reached first on an error by the Terry Sanford second baseman. Two batters later, Neo Best singled up the middle into center field, which gave Orange a 3-0 lead. David Waitt followed two more batters later and ripped a two out single to left field, which made the count 4-0 in favor of the Panthers.
To their credit, Terry Sanford refused to give in, as Cameron Seagroves got his pitch and lifted a three-run homer beyond the left field fence, pulling the Bulldogs within 4-3 on one swing of the bat. Orange added to its lead in the bottom of the third inning, as Codey Snipes was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, plating Conner Funk for a 5-3 Panthers lead. But Terry Sanford rallied for two runs to tie the game 5-5 heading into the bottom of the sixth inning.
In the bottom of the sixth, Berini led off with a walk, and Waitt sacrificed him to second. Hench followed with a fly ball to right field that fell in for a hit, putting runners at the corners with one out. Funk came through with another Panthers single, bringing home Berini with what turned out to be the winning run. But Orange kept going, as Cameron Guentensberger single up the middle into center field to score Hench, and Nordan lifted a fly ball to right field that turned into a sacrifice fly and an 8-5 Panthers lead.
Funk set the Bulldogs down in the top of the seventh, picking up two strikeouts, including a whiff of Terry Sanford’s Brady Gore to end the game. OHS improved to 18-8 overall with the victory, and lived to fight another day.
Funk led the way offensively for Orange with three hits and a RBI, while Waitt and Hench each had two hits. Hench finished the game with two RBIs, while Waitt also drove home a run. Snipes and Best also picked up RBIs for the victorious Panthers, while as a team the Panthers banged out 12 hits. Cross Clayton went 5 1/3 innings for OHS, allowing seven hits and five earned runs with four strikeouts. Funk ended up getting the win, as he came on in the sixth inning and held the Bulldogs hitless with three strikeouts.
If the Panthers can go to Greenville and upset Rose, OHS will play either South Central, First Flight, or North Brunswick in the state quarterfinals on Friday, May 20.