North Carolina vs. Wisconsin, 6 p.m.

Tar Heels set for NCAA softball regional vs. Wisconsin

CorrespondentMay 16, 2013 

— Kristen Brown was almost giddy after North Carolina’s 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 isn’t 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 UNC’s shortstop excited.

“I’ve worked my whole life for this – just watching TV growing up,” Brown said. “It’s 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 UNC’s 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. She’s 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.

“I’m 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 I’m going to get, so I better make the best of it.”

For much of her career, Orr had shown strong bursts of offense but couldn’t 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.

“She’s a great competitor,” Papa said. “She’s 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 there’s 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 UNC’s worst overall week of the season and shouldn’t have a bearing on Thursday’s game.

If the Tar Heels win, they will likely have to contend with the Ducks, who are one of the tournament’s favorites.

Papa hopes the team sees it as an opportunity.

“We’ve talked to them about just playing free,” Papa said. ...If you compete well, you’re going to have fun.”

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