Three years of building a football foundation by Orange High coach Pat Moser paid off in 2012 as the Panthers raced through an 11-3 campaign. Orange reached the fourth round of the playoffs before being eliminated by Havelock, the eventual N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A champion.
The 11 victories were three more than any other season since the turn of the century, surpassing 2008’s 8-5 season, the program’s only other winning season since the mid ’90s.
If Moser’s rebuilt Panthers can post a winning season in 2013, it will be the first back-to-back winning records since 1992 (6-4) and 1993 (9-3).
The Panthers may be on the brink of even greater success this season, but Moser cautions there are no certainties. The team has skilled offensive personnel and returns eight defensive starters from a unit that held six teams to seven points or less and another three teams to two touchdowns.
“If we can stay healthy, if everyone is eligible and if we can get a few breaks at the right time, we could be pretty good,” Moser said. “I’m kind of excited by this team.
“But when I look at our schedule, I don’t know if its Elon University’s or Orange High’s. We had a hard time getting on people’s schedules. You really don’t want to open the season against three 4A schools (Person, Northern Durham and Durham Riverside).”
After a nonconference matchup with Graham, which Moser coached to the 2000 state championship, Orange begins play in the new Big Eight Conference against Pittsboro Northwood on Sept. 27 followed by Northern Vance and Cedar Ridge.
The Panthers close with league games at Chapel Hill, at Oxford Webb, at home against Cardinal Gibbons and at Southern Durham. Gibbons, which was 11-1 in 2012, and Southern Durham, 7-4 a year ago in 4A, are expected to contend with Orange for the first Big Eight 3A regular-season title.
“Our early schedule against all of the 4A teams should toughen us up and make us better,” Moser said. “Hopefully, we’ll be playing our best football at the end of the year.”
The Panthers graduated 13 seniors from last year’s team, which dropped a 28-21 decision to Gibbons in the game that decided the 2012 league regular-season title. But after that loss the Panthers rolled in the playoffs.
Orange handled Eastern Wayne 38-6, South Johnson 56-13 and Eastern Alamance 14-13 before being ousted 42-7 by Havelock, which has won the last two NCHSAA 3A titles.
Patrick Pettiford emerged as the running star in 2012, dashing for 1,200 yards in an offense that featured three primary runners. “He should get the ball more this year,” Moser said.
Graduated quarterback Sean Motley was a team leader last year, but barely won the starting job in the preseason a year ago over then-sophomore Garrett Cloer, who guided the Panthers’ junior-varsity to an undefeated season. Junior wingback Tay Jones is expected to play a big role, too.
Fullback Michael Bolden, a 240-pounder, is an excellent blocker at the point of attack and the offensive line, led by center Adam Reynolds and guard Zack Wagoner, is filled with veterans, although all but the 250-pound Wagoner is in the 200- to 210-pound range.
“We don’t have much size up front, but they are smart and seasoned,” Moser said.
Defensive linemen Artrell Stewart and Dominique McCulley were all-conference selections last year as was defensive back J.D. Brooks.
The staff now includes Mike McCauley and Van Smith, who helped coach the defense of Moser’s state championship team in Graham.
The Big Eight 3A looks strong, though, and Orange is third in the conference preseason predictions behind Gibbons and Southern Durham, which would be the No. 2 preseason pick behind Durham Hillside if the Spartans had remained in the PAC-6 4A.
Orange faces its biggest regular-season challenges during the final month of the schedule. Moser hopes the team is playing its best ball of the season by then.