Orange County’s football program has been through so much emotional turmoil in the wake of former Orange player Darius Minor’s passing at the University of Maine, that it has tested their resolve, their strength and their brotherhood. They’re closer now than perhaps they’ve ever been before, a bond forged in shared tragedy.
“We all shed our tears and that formed us together,” said Orange’s Kyrie Carter. “Every game this year is for him.”
Friday night in a 30-28 win over Culpeper that bond was tested on the field as the Hornets fought tooth and nail to hang on to a big first half lead, leaning on their defense in the second half after an explosive offensive performance in the first half sputtered after the break. But Friday was about more than defensive stands and fleeting offensive rhythm. It was about a group of players who knew they could lean on each other even as the Blue Devils surged in the second half.
The Hornets have found a certain inner strength and resolve, and while they’re honoring Minor next week — his family was at the University of Maine this week as the Bears honored his memory there — his memory was there. Alexander was wearing Minor’s No. 1, a change from Alexander’s 15 last season and Noah Carey had Minor’s initials and number embroidered on his towel while making some key stops on defense. It was clear the impact Minor’s passing, the passing of their friend, teammate and brother, has had on the players and the program.
“The last six or seven weeks you don’t ever plan for that situation,” said Orange coach Jesse Lohr. “You’ve got to kind of deal with it to the best of your ability. You try to be strong for the kids and the kids try to be strong for one another.”
They were strong for one another all night Friday, with the defense finding a way to come up with stops time and time again to make the offense’s explosive first half stand up. Culpeper packed the box to try and slow down Jaylen Alexander in the ground game and Orange struggled to move the ball in the second half. Alexander finished with 159 yards on the ground, but the bulk of that came in the first half led by his 72-yard run that set up a two-yard score and put Orange on the board.
Orange also got things going through the air, with first-year starter Walker Johnson unleashing a 66-yard touchdown bomb to Jireek Washington down the sideline on his first pass of the year. Johnson finished with 196 yards through the air on 10-for-16 passing and threw three first half touchdowns, finding a lot of open receivers with the Blue Devils focused on Alexander.
“He had a great first half,” Alexander said of Johnson. “We can’t stop a team from putting nine in box, we’ve just got to find a way to keep the passing game consistent.”
Johnson found Jireek Washington again later in the first half on a leaping catch in the endzone between three defenders and then connected with Chris Washington for a 36-yard catch and run just before halftime. With the help of a second quarter safety by Jireek Washington on a punt, Orange rolled into halftime with a 30-14 lead.
“The first half he saw it and the second half he lost it,” Lohr said. “Even then he made some key throws but we’ve got to be better from top to bottom.”
That lack of rhythm and the loaded box put the pressure on the defense and a pick six early in the third quarter didn’t help matters for that unit. Culpeper made the mistake of testing Carter in key situations though, trying to run right at the big outside linebacker a couple of times on crucial conversion attempts. Coming off a knee injury a year ago that kept him off the field, Carter smothered a run on a third down single-handedly and held his ground on a third quarter fourth down stop long enough for a gang of Hornets including middle linebacker Tucker Hensley to get to the ball carrier.
“It felt unbelievable to be out here with my brothers, I missed them so much through year,” Carter said. “I grinded hard to get back where I am, I’m so happy to be on the field with my brothers to catch this win tonight.”
Carter’s third down stop led to a punt attempt by Culpeper that hit off the personal protector’s back. That gave Orange the opportunity to cash in with a short field and put the game out of reach, but the Hornets sputtered again. The punt put the Hornets’ defense on the spot and Doug Newsome picked off a pass to give Orange’s offense a short field again. An exchange fumble though prevented the Hornets from extending their lead and then Culpeper went over the top to Capone Hoffman for an 85-yard touchdown. Hoffman had the pick six in the third quarter and returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in an incredible effort by the 6-foot-2 senior.
Orange’s defense stood the test again when the Hornets were forced to punt with less than two minutes to play. They appeared to force a turnover on downs but a measurement gave Culpeper new life and a fresh set of downs with under a minute. That’s when the pass rush stepped up as Orange made two sacks in the final 30 seconds with Chance Williams leading the charge on the last one to close out the win.
“There are moments of weakness and moments of struggle but I think it brought the kids closer together,” Lohr said. “Even with these heartbroken feelings, the kids became even tighter and found a way to finish a football game. Last few weeks have been really good in practice but there have just been some heavy hearts.”
They continue that healing process each day, but they’ll remember. As Carter put it, for the Hornets, every game this year is for Minor.