UNC baseball has reached the College World Series five times since 2006. Can this year's team win it all?
By LAUREN BROWNLOW FS Carolinas
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The preseason No. 1 team in the country according to most college baseball polls, it’s not a surprise that North Carolina has managed to hold on to that ranking. Everyone knew UNC would be good, even their head coach Mike Fox.
But in mid-April, the Tar Heels are 36-2.
Just the mention of that record makes Fox shake his head in disbelief.
“I thought we had a chance to be a good club, but so far everything has just kind of bounced our way. If we have one guy not play well, we’ve had a couple other guys that have,” Fox said. “It’s just kind of been the perfect storm. We’ve been lucky. We’ve been good. We’ve been opportunistic. ... So it’s kind of been a mixture of everything.”
Fox is more than qualified to help his team handle success, too. After the UNC alum took over the program in 1999, the Tar Heels made the NCAA Tournament in six of Fox’s first seven years. They advanced past the Regional round just once, but broke through in 2006, reaching the College World Series (and even winning the opening game of the Championship Series over Oregon State). It started a streak of four straight College World Series appearances between 2006-09, and five in a six-year stretch when the Tar Heels made it again in 2011.
This year, though, is different.
The Tar Heels have had talented rosters in the past, but they’ve dropped games in the competitive ACC. Those teams even lost a series or two. It happens. But this year, UNC could lose nine of its remaining 18 regular season games and still finish with a better winning percentage than it has had in any season under Fox so far.
“To be 35- or 36-2? Right? I lost count,” senior first baseman Cody Stubbs said. “You want to be there, but in baseball sometimes that’s hard. Just think about sweeping somebody on the weekend, beating them all three games is not easy to do. Where we’re at right now, I don’t think anybody takes it for granted but it’s something that we’re very happy about.”
But when asked how it’s happened, and what’s different this year, Stubbs couldn’t put his finger on it.
“I couldn’t really tell you. I guess that’s something I don’t even want to find out, to be honest with you. Just keep it a secret,” Stubbs said. “Maybe we’ll find out at the end.”
Junior third baseman Colin Moran, one of the best hitters in the country with a .396 average, isn’t big on over-thinking it.
He just knows that it’s working.
“When you’re on a roll and you have a good record and things are going (well), it definitely builds confidence and you don’t think you’re going to lose, ever,” Moran said. “Late inning when you’re down by whatever, you always just keep fighting. I think we have a lot of fight in us. Different people have contributed, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
Last year, Moran was UNC’s only true offensive threat. While UNC continued to feature top-tier pitching and excellent defense, it had struggled to score runs consistently in the last few years. That certainly hasn’t been a problem this season, as UNC led the nation in scoring entering this week. Four different Tar Heels are hitting .344 or better, and six are over .300.
The Tar Heels have a dominant pitching staff (as usual), but have some solid, opportunistic hitters in the lineup this time around. Freshman rightfielder Skye Bolt (who is hitting .392) went out recently with a broken foot, but he’ll be back before the season is over and the Tar Heels are 4-0 without him.
They’ve held teams to two runs or fewer 23 times this season. But even when staff ace Kent Emanuel allowed eight runs last weekend at Virginia Tech, Carolina won easily by scoring 21 of its own. The Tar Heels have overcome late-inning deficits, managed some two-out hits to drive in runs and their pitchers have even gotten themselves out of bases-loaded jams.
Sure, a lot of the guys are tough-minded veterans. But they have their superstitions, too.
Stubbs said that when there’s a 3-2 count with two outs, the pitchers in the dugout will lift weights, or simply bench-press a stool, or even a teammate. Sometimes, they mime rowing a boat while one of them stands in the front with a bat to his eye, like a telescope. “Just to try to flip the mojo,” Stubbs said. “They just try to do something like that to get the job done.”
Regardless of the effectiveness of the bizarre dugout rituals, the mojo has been mostly favorable for the Tar Heels. And this team has started to think it can win any game it plays in, which is of course both good and bad. It’s a long season. Teams lose games. Fox acknowledges that his team has been lucky, and he seems to be dreading the moment when the baseball gods give them a streak of bad luck. He’s been around the game long enough to know that it’s inevitable.
“We’re going to hit a stretch here — it’s coming. It’s coming. It is. And when it does come, we’re going to have to be able to handle it,” Fox said. “I think the key is when it does happen, nobody just freak out. ‘Oh my gosh, what in the world happened? You lost two games in a row or you lost a weekend series.’ We’ve lost weekend series in the past and chances are, you’re going to do it again.
“I hope not, but in the back of my mind I have to prepare for that because I don’t have to prepare a whole lot for winning. Really, if we keep winning, I just keep putting the same guys in the lineup. But in the back of my mind, I have to be prepared if it does happen just to put a good spin on it and move on.”
It’s a delicate balance between enjoying the journey while not getting caught up in it. Fox is trying to have fun, but he hasn’t really been able to think about it. He’s been too busy trying to make sure everyone on the team keeps their head out of the clouds. Any time he senses any sort of egotism developing, he deals with it.
He hasn’t hesitated to sit someone down this year for lack of hustle, and he often rewards the unheralded players more than his stars.
“I don’t like egotistical. I don’t like any of that. We’re going to stay humble. We’re going to stay hungry,” Fox said.
And the gaudy record means that UNC seems destined to return to the College World Series for the sixth time in eight years. Maybe this is the year the Tar Heels will win the whole thing, too.
It’s difficult to look anywhere inside Boshamer Stadium without seeing some reminder of a recent trip to the College World Series. It might be a placard honoring the feat or a photo of a celebration from Omaha, but it’s there, sometimes literally hanging over this team in the form of a picture on the ceiling.
“That’s just a credit to the guys that have come through here and set that tone, set that mark. Growing up as a Carolina fan, the College World Series was like all you watched, at least from 2006 on. The College World Series definitely isn’t the standard, but it’s the goal,” Moran said. “But you’re not going to get to Omaha today. You’ve got to take care of business today. Coach (Fox) has preached to us ‘day by day’ and ‘stay with the process’ all the time, so that’s definitely a big part.”
Fox is happy that his team is 36-2, of course. Coaches want to win. But he knows that this team’s record will mean next to nothing when the postseason starts.
He also knows that if the team keeps going as it has, the proverbial target on their backs will only get bigger and bigger. UNC hosted the Regional round last year and still lost, falling twice to St. John’s.
“You can close a door on all 60 games when the Regionals get here. I hope our guys know that. Last year should remind them that it’s not a given,” Fox said. “When you get into the NCAA Tournament, those other games don’t matter. In fact, I think if we stay where we are (record-wise), we’re going to have even more pressure on us. It’ll be up to me and the rest of our coaches to try to alleviate that in some way. We’ll have to figure that out when we get there.”