By Jeff Hamlin
Issac Marsh’s first win as Chapel Hill High School football coach came at Auman Stadium Aug. 27, 2004. It couldn’t have gone any better. The Tigers defeated Orange 48-0 when quarterback Kyle Holland threw for over 300 yards.
17 years to the day of that game, Marsh won his second game at Auman Stadium. It was anything but comfortable.
It was filled with every incredulous turn, strange play calling, false finishes and gutsy gambles that makes the Chapel Hill-Orange game zany, unpredictable and downright fun.
Anyone who knows this rivalry would expect nothing less.
In front of a spirited group of Chapel Hill fans that included a large student section waving team flags, the Tigers (1-0) held on to defeat Orange (0-2) 27-21 Friday night. Not to be outdone, the Orange fans turned out on Hawaii night wearing the expected gear.
In April, Chapel Hill kicker Nolan Westroom kicked a 40-yard field goal as time expired to lift Chapel Hill past Orange 24-22 in the regular season finale at Culton-Peerman Stadium. It preserved a share of the Big 8 Conference championship for the Tigers, as well as a trip to the state playoffs. On Friday night, it appeared that Orange was brewing for yet another dramatic comeback of its own. On a night where the humidity was 85%, the game was constantly halted because of players cramping up. It left the Tigers struggling to find enough capable bodies to hold on to a 27-14 lead it had built with 4:33 remaining. Orange had two chances to score the game-tying touchdown in the final three minutes of regulation. Both drives ended in turnovers.
Chapel Hill senior quarterback Caleb Kelly threw for two touchdowns, including one on the final play of the first half that vaulted the Tigers into the lead permanently. Kelly finished 9-of-18 for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s a good feeling,” Marsh said. “But I would say the first win in the stadium was more of a statement. This win…we got out of here held together but with some Scotch tape. We lost a lot of key players. But we’re walking away from here with a win to start the season.”
Chapel Hill, which lost 11 straight times to the Panthers from 2009-2019, defeated Orange for the second time in four months.
Orange’s Jared Weaver blocked a 37-yard field goal attempt by Chapel Hill kicker Taran Coyne Smith. That led to a 13-play, 71-yard drive where Orange converted four third-downs. It ended when senior running back Omarion Lewis broke two tackles to score on an 11-yard scamper into the end zone. Kicker Darius Satterfield took a snap from long snapper Jake Wimsatt on the extra point and ran it in to put Orange ahead 8-0.
Chapel Hill would score on its next three possessions. It started when senior Elijah Ayankoya returned the ensuing kickoff back 86 yards for a touchdown. Weaver blocked the extra point to keep Orange ahead 8-6.
The Tigers got the ball back with 1:06 remaining in the first half. Kelly threw to senior Josh Campos for a 41-yard pass to penetrate the Orange end zone. After three straight incompletions, Chapel Hill faced a 4th-and-10. Marsh eschewed another 40-yard field goal attempt, a decision that paid off handsomely. Kelly found Campos in the back corner of the end zone for a gorgeous 20-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the first half.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, Chapel Hill’s Tai Kirk recovered a fumble by Orange’s returner at the Panther 29-yard line. Kelly got into the red zone with an eleven-yard run, and later flipped the ball on a tap pass to wide receiver Anthony Muldrow, who curved up the middle of the line for a 5-yard touchdown. Drew Allen added the 2-point run as Chapel Hill increased its lead to 20-8.
“We can’t do anything without Caleb,” Marsh said. “I hate to put a lot of things on his shoulders. Our backup is strong, and if Caleb were to go down, (backup) Jake (Long) could do the same thing because they work at it day in and day out. But Caleb has been working at it for four years and is a veteran at it. We don’t have to tell him certain things to do at the end of games because he knows it from his leadership.”
Orange’s sophomore running back Nate Sorrells took over on the next drive. He started by returning the kickoff 31 yards. After Lewis converted a 3rd-and-2, Sorrells bolted around left end for a 35-yard run. Hecht would score his first touchdown of the season on a fullback dive to reduce Chapel Hill’s lead to 20-14.
Jabari Albright recovered a fumble late in the third quarter to start a drive at the Chapel Hill 49-yard line. The drive stalled out after consecutive penalties pushed Orange back to the 50-yard line.
The game turned on Orange’s opening possession of the fourth quarter. The Panthers were set to punt on a 4th-and-10 from their own 35-yard line. At this point, Orange called for a fake punt, where Hecht was stopped by Becket Yates and Palmer Blanchard after a 2-yard gain, which turned the ball over on downs to Chapel Hill deep in Orange territory.
“We had poor execution,” Smith said about the called play. “It was there. It was there. Wide open.”
Chapel Hill needed only six plays to score what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. After Kelly started the drive with a 12-yard gain, Allen scored on a 1-yard plunge with 4:33 remaining.
Trailing 27-14, Orange needed something fast and they got it. Quarterback Wynston Brown found Sorrells for a nine-yard gain, and picked up 15 more yards after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Brown floated a screen pass to Sorrells for a 35-yard touchdown pass, scoring just 40 seconds after Kelly touchdown.
Orange forced Chapel Hill into its only 3-and-out of the game after Kelly was pressured into an incompletion on 3rd-and-11 by linebackers Connor Ray and Jackson Wood. Orange took over at their own 26-yard line, but on 3rd-and-9, Brown had the ball knocked free and recovered by Tiger defensive lineman Edward Bassett.
It appeared that the Tigers would simply run out the clock, but this wild night wasn’t going to end that meekly. Running back Cayden Forbes, who finished with 102 yards, fumbled at the Orange 16-yard line with 1:02 remaining. Orange’s Kameron Harshaw got the ball back and the Panthers incredibly got yet another chance to take the lead.
But there was no miracle Friday night.
Brown marched the Panthers into Chapel Hill territory after an 11-yard pass to Sorrells, followed by another personal foul penalty. Chapel Hill’s Jeremy Breeze ended the struggle with an interception at the 30-yard line.