On Friday, Orange saw fire and rain, but there was no sunny day they thought would never end.
Instead, they saw plenty from Topsail lefty Payton Phelps. In only his fourth start of the season, Phelps threw six shutout innings, limiting the Panthers to three hits as Topsail defeated Orange 7-0 to advance to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A East regional finals.
Topsail (19-9) will face Corinth Holders in the best-of-three regional series. Game one will be in Hampstead.
“We knew they were good,” said Orange coach Dean Dease. “They played the game they needed to play. I don’t think we played the way we’re capable of playing. We didn’t hit the ball like we could and we made three errors. The lefty kept us off-balance.”
Phelps’ start was a mild surprise since Topsail’s usual second-day starter is freshman Aidan Smith. Pirates acting head coach Chris Blake opted to go with Phelps after his victory over Two Rivers 3A Conference champion Cleveland last Friday.
“(Phelps) has been our long relief guy,” said Blake. “Against Cleveland, he came in the second inning. We felt confident with him going in. We felt he was a good matchup against Orange. That Cleveland game, he showed us stuff that we really liked.”
Going into Friday, Dease knew Topsail was going to present a challenge since his star pitcher, Bryse Wilson, had thrown in the Panthers’ first three playoff games. He knew it would be a staff game, opting to start sophomore Eli Haithcock, who hadn’t thrown since April 21. What Dease didn’t know was the outside elements that would creep at the 11th hour.
Roughly 90 minutes before the first pitch, a fire erupted at a 30,000 square foot textile plant about three miles away from Orange High. The smoke spread east, creating a dark haze over the ballpark on an already overcast day.
The blaze also knocked out power to a nearby Duke Energy substation, shutting down electricity across town. At first, Orange County administration wanted to postpone the game. However, Topsail’s team and fans had already driven 165 miles from Hampstead, so Dease and Blake agreed to start 30 minutes early without lights or a scoreboard.
It was an upstream battle for Orange from the beginning. Topsail leadoff man Josh Madole laced a line drive solo homer to right field off Haithcock. It was Topsail’s second home run of the year.
In the third, Pirates second baseman Chase Ryker delivered the most damaging blow, a bases-loaded double to right-center that scored Cameron Kimrey, Madole and Sam Hall to give the Pirates a 4-0 lead.
Meanwhile, Orange was shutout for just the second time this season. Limited to a season-low three hits, they never had a batter reach third base. Phelps struck out six to improve to 4-1.
Wilson had a base hit in his final at-bat, ending arguably the most storied career in Orange history. He won 33 games as a pitcher, striking out 335 batters as opposed to 43 walks, and finished with a lifetime batting average of .344.
Dease spoke to reporters only after a private, lengthy discussion with his 10-man senior class, which won 92 games, four Big 8 Conference championships, two district crowns and a sectional title.
“Those are numbers good enough to retire on,” said Dease half-jokingly.
Has he ever given it serious thought?
“Only after losses.”