DURHAM — It was a staff day.
These are the days when a baseball team is likely at the end of a tournament, playing its third game in three days. They’ve already used their top two starters in the prior days, and with seven more innings to get through, coaches without a third starter have to rely on a staff that’s been held together with bubble gum, invisible tape and dental floss to get through the final day.
This was the situation Orange found itself in on Saturday against Riverside in the final day of the Hilltop Invitational Tournament. If there’s one thing the Panthers have found themselves doing over the last two months, it’s adjusting on the fly. Being a homeless baseball team will do that to you.
Despite trailing 4-0 early and 11-9 going into the 7th inning. the Panthers rallied for three in the 7th to defeat the Pirates 12-11 on Saturday on Davis Field at Jordan High.
Sophomore catcher Tony Debo laced a two-run double to left center to score Collin Pope and Joe Piscatelli for the game-winning hit in a game that featured nine pitchers, 15 walks, 22 hits and four hit batters.
Debo, a sophomore South Carolina commitment, started the game as catcher but ended up the winning pitcher in his season debut on the mound. He threw a grand total of four innings all of last season.
“We were going to pitch several guys a few innings,” said Orange coach Dean Dease. “But we ended up walking ten and hitting two, so some of them didn’t get to stay out there for their stints as long as we had hoped. So we had to piecemeal things, and Brad did a good job.”
The Panthers (9-2) ended the Hilltop 2-1, following a 8-2 loss to Kernersville Glenn on Friday.
East Chapel Hill, West Forsyth and Heritage High all finished undefeated in the Hilltop, which guaranteed all 12 participating teams that they would play three games during spring break, as opposed to a traditional tournament.
Riverside (10-3) came a pitch away from joining the undefeated group, with all three games decided by one run.
For Debo, competition against friends isn’t peculiar or awkward. It’s a way of life. Against Riverside, he faced many former classmates and teammates from his childhood in Durham before he transferred to Hillsborough in 6th grade.
The rivalries are just beginning.
Debo’s good friend and teammate, Bryce Wilson, committed to UNC over the winter. The camaraderie that’s developed between Debo and Wilson over the past five years is destined to develop into the standard geographical rivalry and countless arguments over who goes to the real “Carolina” in the years ahead. Not that Debo is getting sentimental.
“Are you kidding? I’d love to have bragging rights,” laughs Debo about any potential matchups with Wilson. “Is that even a question? We’re always competitive with each other.”
For Orange, the main question nowadays is “Where next?”
A February winter storm caused over $55,000 damage to Dease’s prized shrine of a baseball field, turning the Panthers into a barnstorming unit, worthy of the 70s cult baseball film “Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.”
So far, Orange’s “home” games have been played in Apex, Durham, Chapel Hill and at their crosstown rival Cedar Ridge.
Dease, who has coached the Panthers since the late 80s, has never had to call two weeks ahead and ask coaches for permission to use their fields for games. Until now.
“The coaches have been great,” said Dease. “Coach Devy Bell at Jordan agreed to let us use this field for the Hilltop, and he did it better than I could have. But I think the players believe the bus rides are getting a little old.”
“I hate it,” said Debo. “I love our home crowd, and you’re always on the road.”