HILLSBOROUGH — After 20 straight games on the road, the Orange Panthers were due for some good luck.
You have to live a long time to find a team playing its “Senior Night” game in only its third home tilt of the year, but that’s exactly the scenario the Panthers found themselves against crosstown rival Cedar Ridge on Friday night.
Except for the 30 percent chance of thunderstorms that put the game in doubt as first pitch approached. There were intermittent raindrops, umbrellas popping up in the grandstand, which would have been all too cruel for the nine seniors who have spent the season playing “home” games in Durham, Cary and Chapel Hill because of a March winter storm that did thousands of dollars to their home field.
Fortunately, Mother Nature smiled, and the Panthers defeated Cedar Ridge 10-6 Friday to finish the regular season 20-3 and finish the Big 8 Conference schedule with a perfect 14-0.
“I know the seniors were excited to finally be back home,” said coach Dean Dease. “It wasn’t our home opener, but it sure did seem like it. I think we were a little anxious to be back on our home field.”
It wasn’t just any home field.
Coach Dean Dease had spent 26 years keeping the field in pristine shape, not only for his Panthers but for the Hillsborough Youth Athletic Association little league teams to run around the bases well into August. Panther Field had lights installed years before cross-county rival Chapel Hill, and before East Chapel Hill, Carrboro High and Cedar Ridge even existed.
Even when the Panthers didn’t have the ballplayers, they had their ballpark. Until March 6th.
Ironically, an addition to the ballfield may have led to greater damage. New netting was installed before the 2013 season to keep fly balls from sailing onto the adjacent softball field, where the Lady Panthers often play simultaneously with the baseball games. The new netting may have contained Mr. Spaulding, but it was no match for 1 inch of ice.
Dease arrived to his field on March 7 to find the netting had collapsed, along with the entire fencing area that stretched down both dugouts, which wasn’t even a year old. The brick backstop had to be completely rebuilt.
It took decades to keep Panther Field a beauty. It would take a team to rebuild her. The rebuilding process started with Orange Athletic Director Ernie Price, along with Principal Jason Johnson and former Orange Principal Dr. Stephen Halkiotis, now a member of the Orange County Board of Education.
Meanwhile, Dease had to tend to his day-to-day coaching duties of a team that was a threat to win the 3-A state championship. Neighboring schools Cedar Ridge, Chapel Hill, Jordan and the USA Baseball Complex agreed to loan the Panthers a field. Orange may have been a barnstorming team, but at least they could play.
On Friday, Orange had other good news as star catcher Brad Debo continued his torrid hitting. He drilled a two-run homer to deepest center during a four-run first inning. Orange put the game out of reach with six more runs in the third, when 11 Panthers went to the plate as they took a 10-1 lead.
Cedar Ridge inched back with five consecutive runs down the stretch, including a two run single by Neil Higgins in the sixth that narrowed the Panthers lead to 10-5.
James Cunningham (4-0) recorded Friday’s win by working four innings, striking out three Red Wolves. Jonah Neville and Brad Debo pitched in relief.
Three days before, Jordan Toney (6-1) pitched a complete game shutout, 6-0, at the Red Wolves’ home field. Toney scattered five hits over a full seven innings of work, striking out three Red Wolves and walking one.
Even though the Panthers have returned to their own friendly confines, there were still questions as they entered the 3A state playoffs to face Northeast Guilford (11-14). The first involves sophomore Bryce Wilson, who has committed to UNC. After going 11-0 with a 1.16 ERA during his freshman year, Wilson hasn’t pitched since April 6 because of shoulder problems. He was relegated to designated hitter duties, and wasn’t expected to throw in the first playoff game.
Chapel Hill, Northwood on the road, East at home
Chapel Hill finished its first season under head coach Lee Land in strong fashion, winning four of their last five games to seal second place in the Big Eight standings and a spot in the state 3A playoffs.
Despite losing its season-finale, 9-4 to Cardinal Gibbons on Friday, Chapel Hill finished 14-8 overall and 10-4 in conference games, one game ahead of third-place Northwood (11-10, 9-5).
Chapel Hill was set for a first-round game with Rockingham County (14-11), the No. 2 team from the powerful Mid-State 3A Conference.
Hunt (13-10), which won a playoff game Friday against archrival Wilson Fike (14-8) for second place in the Big East Conference. The Chargers outscored opponents 37-3 in the final two weeks of the season, won four straight Big Eight games to earn the league's No. 3 seed, bumping Cardinal Gibbons (13-8, 7-7) down to fourth place and out of the playoff picture.
In 4A baseball, East Chapel Hill closed the regular season with three straight PAC-6 wins to force a one-game playoff with Northern Durham for second place in the conference. Playing last Friday on neutral Davis Field at Durham’s Jordan High School, the Wildcats (15-7) came away with a 5-3 win and earned a home game with Cap-8 No. 3 seed Leesville Road (16-5) for the NCHSAA 4A’s first round.
In the 2A East, Carrboro (8-12) was sent to face Randleman (17-9) in the 2A brackets.