CHAPEL HILL — Kristen Brown was almost giddy after North Carolinas flight out to play in the Oregon regional of the NCAA softball tournament.
The Tar Heels took a charter to Portland, giving them plenty of space to spread out. Only the team was on the flight, meaning they could talk as much as they wanted without interrupting anyone else. For a freshman who isnt used to the perks that sometimes accompany postseason competition, it qualified as a highlight.
Truth be told, just about everything about the NCAA tournament experience is going to leave UNCs shortstop excited.
Ive worked my whole life for this just watching TV growing up, Brown said. Its so exciting I cannot put it into words.
Brown will hope to add to the memories when UNC (39-19) opens its NCAA tournament Thursday against Wisconsin (42-11) at 6 p.m. Brigham Young (33-23) and third-seeded Oregon (46-9) are also in the Tar Heels regional for the double-elimination tournament.
Brown has combined with senior third baseman Constance Orr to give UNC a strong left side of the infield while anchoring the lineup. Brown hit .352 with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs this season.
After an early season injury to lead-off hitter Elisha Elliott, UNC coach Donna Papa moved the freshman to the leadoff spot. Brown thrived in the role.
In UNCs home series against Georgia Tech in late April, Brown hit three home runs and had five RBIs to earn ACC player of the week honors. Her leadoff home run in the nationally televised series finale cleared the trees in left field at Anderson Stadium and set the tone for the Tar Heels 11-6 win.
I think Kristen is a special player, Papa said. She has really done a great job defensively. She just makes tough plays look easy. Shes kind of like our energy at the top of the lineup. When she gets on, it really kind of gets the momentum going for us."
If Brown is trying to soak up everything about her first NCAA tournament experience, Orr wants to do the same, but for a different reason this postseason will be her last one.
Im trying to take full advantage of my last year, Orr said.
Reality is hitting me that this is it, and this is the last chance Im going to get, so I better make the best of it.
For much of her career, Orr had shown strong bursts of offense but couldnt quite keep it going for a sustained period. Before this season started, Orr worked with the coaches to get her legs more involved in her swing she relied on her quick hands in the past in an effort to improve her consistency.
She leads the team with 15 home runs, 50 RBIs and a .358 average. Asked if she had a personal highlight from Orr from the season, Papa said she has hit too many home runs to pick one out.
Shes a great competitor, Papa said. Shes one of those people you want to have at the plate when the game is on the line and out in the field when the game is on the line because she is going to make those plays and be the one she wants to be there at the moment.
Both players hope theres more than one of those moments over the next couple days.
The Tar Heels lost 4-2 to Wisconsin in a tournament at Louisville, Ky. in March, but Papa said that was UNCs worst overall week of the season and shouldnt have a bearing on Thursdays game.
If the Tar Heels win, they will likely have to contend with the Ducks, who are one of the tournaments favorites.
Papa hopes the team sees it as an opportunity.
Weve talked to them about just playing free, Papa said. ...If you compete well, youre going to have fun.