Orange pinning hopes on peaking in postseason
When the Orange Panthers step onto its home mat against Thomasville Ledford at 6 tonight, it will mark a record 24th appearance in the state wrestling dual team tournament for one of North Carolina’s most accomplished juggernauts.
Orange is in rarified athletic air, having won state duals tournaments five times previously. But coach Bobby Shriner knows impressive credentials and past prowess alone are no guarantee in the rough-and-tumble fracas of this scramble for state supremacy.
“We always talk about giving your best effort out there,” said Shriner, now in his 25th year at the helm of the powerful Panthers program. “Every team’s different. You’re not promised anything any year. It’s just a bunch of hard work and hope for the best, and that’s really our motto.”
Having a wealth of experience in the duals gives Shriner valuable insight to what lies in store.
“It’s always a grinder,” Shriner said of the tournament, which kicks off at 6 tonight for all teams, and features back-to-back first- and second-round matches.
“We’re going to try our best and take one match at a time. This is what we work for all year. What we did good and bad during the season doesn’t matter. It matters this week.”
His wrestlers were getting ramped up for another run at the state title after winning the Big Eight 3-A wrestling conference on Saturday against Chapel Hill. And Eden John M. Morehead was a popular topic of discussion.
If Orange defeats Ledford, it will go against the winner between Mid-State champ Morehead and Cape Fear Valley runner-up Terry Sanford in the second round at 7:30 tonight, also at Orange.
Morehead is 33-1, having lost only to Parkland this season, in a dual featuring two of North Carolina’s most dominant teams. Morehead dumped Orange 45-18 in a Dec. 14 dual meet at Morehead, and that’s an irritant for Panthers pride.
“Our toughest match will be Morehead for sure, which we can definitely pull out,” Panthers 138-pounder Collin Smith said. “We ran the numbers, and we can definitely make that happen, but everybody will have to be on their game.”
“Morehead was a really tough team,” said 152-pounder Gonzalo Garcia. “I’m just hoping we’ll come out and put it all on the mat. We’re looking forward to the match.”
But first Orange must get past Ledford, the No. 2 team from the rugged Mid-Piedmont conference. Shriner knows his team could be in jeopardy if it looks past that first round while itching to avenge the loss to Morehead.
“We talk about it all year at tournaments and stuff. You never overlook the guys that you’re wrestling. It’s going to be tough,” Shriner said. “(Morehead is) a great program. Hopefully we get to that round and see them.”
Chapel Hill coach Tripp Price said his team must shake off its conference-championship loss to Orange and prepare for the postseason tournaments.
“I feel good going into the duals. Hopefully we’ll make a little noise there,” Price said.
Chapel Hill is making its ninth appearance in the state duals with a 4-8 record. It will host Cameron Union Pines, the Cape Fear Valley conference champ, in the first round at 6 tonight. If the Tigers win, they will immediately wrestle the winner between Two Rivers champ Cleveland and Mid-State runner-up Eastern Guilford at 7:30.
In other state duals action, PAC-6 4-A champ Riverside will host wild card Athens Drive at 6. The winner will square off with the winner between Cap Eight champion Sanderson and Greater Neuse River runner-up Knightdale at 7:30, also at Riverside.
PAC-6 runner-up Northern will host Greater Neuse River champ West Johnston at 6, and the winner will go against the winner between Cap Eight runner-up Millbrook and Southwest Wake champ Holly Springs at 7:30 at Northern.
In 2-A, Mid-State runner-up Carrboro will host PAC-6 2-A champ Wheatmore at 6. The winner will face the winner of the other 6 p.m. first-round match pitting Northern Carolina champ South Granville and Northern Carolina wild card Bunn, at 7:30, also at Carrboro.
While Orange will be making its state record 24th appearance since the state dual tournament began in 1990, Cary, Davie County, East Gaston, and St. Stephens also will be making 24th appearances.
Orange won the state duals in 3-A in 2005, 2011 and 2012, and won dual championships in 2-A in 2008 and 2009. The Panthers finished second in 1992 and 1997 in 4-A, and runner-up in 3-A in 2010.
With its five dual team titles, Orange is tied for third place all-time with Morehead, whose wins were all in 3-A, and Alleghany and West Wilkes, both of whose titles were in 1-A and 2-A. Winston-Salem Parkland leads all teams with 9 titles in 4-A and 3-A combined, followed by Cary with 8 crowns in 4-A.
Orange is in 13th place all-time in dual tournament winning percentage at .733. It trails Parkland (.867), Cary (.845), Albermarle .(821), Fuquay-Varina (.810), Elkin (.800), Riverside (.776), Fred T. Foard (.765), Croatan (.764), West Stokes (.750), Morehead (.746), West Wilkes (.742), and Jay Robinson (.741).
Orange also has won four team titles at the individual state championships, in 2008 and 2009 in the 1-A/2-A combined category, and in 2012 and 2013 in 3-A.
So is that track record of success an inspiration for this iteration of Panthers or a millstone around the neck of high-pressure expectations?
Smith, a Panthers captain who is having a stellar season at 35-3 with 20 pins and whose father, Larry, is an assistant coach, doesn’t think the ghosts of Panthers past haunts the team.
“It is pressure once you make it to those high points. After a couple of years you start to get used to it, and you’ll improve because your team is improving,” Smith said.
“It’s definitely a blessing to wrestle on a team that has such good people. Even our backups are really good and they are always pushing us,” Smith said.