Orange winning the first softball championship in school history may have looked easy by having Gatorade N.C. Player of the Year Mia Davidson on the roster but there was so much more going on for the Panthers.
Thanks to an unexpectedly deep run in the state basketball playoffs, Orange didn't have its full roster together when practice began in mid February. That included Davidson, along with MaryBeth Dobbins and Enzyah Holt, who had helped the Panthers finish 26-2 and reach the third round of the playoffs.
Once softball started, it didn't appear Orange had missed a beat.
But Panthers' coach Eddie Davidson could tell his squad wasn't fulfilling its potential, especially at the plate. Meanwhile, senior starting pitcher Kristina Givens got into her groove and Orange opened with 12 straight wins before suffering its first loss to perennial 2A power South Granville.
That's when Davidson started tinkering. Davidson shifted Abby Hamlett from second to shortstop, which then brought about some other changes in the field.
"Abby came to me told me she wanted to move to short to help the team," Davidson said. "She'd been our second basemen her whole time. She showed she's a natural there and was a a leader on the field. I've been impressed with her all year with her leadership."
After trying Hayley Funk, whom Davidson described as the team's most athletically-gifted player, at second for a few games, he moved her to left field where she flourished. Davidson finally settled on freshman Grace Andrews at second and she worked out fine.
Some of the changes also required some players to accept a less roles. Dobbins and Holt, both seniors, saw their playing time diminished but they still contributed when Davidson called upon them.
"They were constant positives on the team," Davidson said.
Orange's season-opening win streak had included victories over Cardinal Gibbons and West Brunswick, a team they'd face again later in the playoffs. After recovering from their 6-2 loss to South Granville, Orange picked up where it left off before stumbling three games later to Oxford Webb. After winning 9-3 the night before at Webb, they lost at home 13-0 to the Warriors, which was the low point of the regular season. It as the only game in which Orange failed to score.
In splitting their regular-season games, it meant Orange and Webb shared the Big Eight regular-season title. It set up a conference playoff game to determine which team would take the top seed from the conference heading into the state playoffs. Orange squeaked out a 3-2 win, which turned out to impact their playoff run.
By defeating Webb, Orange assured itself of playing all of its playoff games at home until the regional championship series. Webb, meanwhile, had to hit the road early and that meant a trip to West Brunswick in the third round. West Brunswick defeated Webb 3-2, setting up their East Region series with the Panthers. Had Webb prevailed over Orange on May 6, it would have been the Panthers making that trip to West Brunswick for a one game instead.
Orange, instead, got a best-of-three series against West Brunswick. And the Panthers needed all three games. The start of the series was delayed because of rain and it also required a venue swap for the first game. Orange had to play Game 1 at West Brunswick instead of hosting and the long trip to Shallotte may have factored into the Panthers' 8-5 loss. But Orange bounced back the next day at home and won games 2 and 3 by scores of 7-4 and 5-1 to send it to the state championship series.
In the regional series, freshman Jaden Hurdle delivered a home run that gave Orange a chance to win Game 1. But the Panthers couldn't hold their one-run lead. In the second and third games, it was a pair of sophomores who delivered home runs. Olivia Ruff hit a first-inning grand slam for her first career home run in Game 2 that set the tone for the rest of the series. In Game 3, Alisha Pettiford blasted her second career home run to give Orange an insurmountable lead.
In the state title series, Orange faced Monroe Piedmont, which entered as the MaxPrep No. 1-ranked team in the state. Their Game 1 matchup was a tight affair and it appeared Orange was going to let it slip away. But that's when Mia Davidson delivered her 53rd career home run — a two-run shot over the centerfield fence at N.C. State's Dail Stadium — to rally Orange. Then on the next day, the Panthers secured the title with a 4-1 victory as Hamlett delivered a two-RBI double that put the game out of reach.
Orange finished the season as offensive juggernaut. The Panthers outscored their opponents 287-67.