Heels, Pack reached new heights in baseball

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 23, 2013 

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UNC's Landon Lassiter (12) is congratulated by teammates after scoring the winning run on a single by teammate Cody Stubbs (25) in the top of the 18th inning to give the Tar Heels at 2-1 victory over N.C. State on Sunday May 26, 2013 during the ACC Baseball Championship at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— The ending was fitting in some ways. Not the how: Both North Carolina and N.C. State finished their baseball seasons with a loss. But the where: With both in Omaha, Neb., on college baseball’s brightest stage at the College World Series. That part was fitting, at least.

In a season full of victories and history-making moments, the Tar Heels and Wolfpack traveled last week hoping for more. North Carolina was at the College World Series for the sixth time in the past eight seasons, and N.C. State for the first time since 1968.

Elliott Avent, the N.C. State coach, had never experienced managing a game in Omaha, where the stakes are higher, the pressure greater. For Mike Fox, the UNC coach, these kinds of trips have become routine. Both coaches knew what to say, and how to react, after their final defeats of the season.

For the Wolfpack, that loss came on Thursday night – a 7-0 defeat against UNC. For UNC, that defeat came the next night – a 4-1 loss against UCLA. Avent spoke of his team’s journey, what it meant to him and people back home who’d never found meaning in a college baseball team like they had this one.

“I think they understood the torch they carry for so many people and so many fans,” Avent said. “And how well they’re loved in the city of Raleigh. And I think they’re very proud.”

He and his players spoke of coming back in the future, and making these trips more of a regular thing. For Fox, the defeat against UCLA was likely among the most difficult he has endured in Omaha. The Tar Heels spent most of the season ranked No. 1, and won 59 games.

This wasn’t the ending he expected.

“(I’m) so sorry for our season to come to an end,” Fox said. “But I’m glad it ended here at Omaha.”

North Carolina’s loss on Friday, and N.C. State’s on Thursday, preceded months of victories, and weeks of anticipation while both teams advanced through the postseason towards their eventual meeting in Omaha. Together, UNC and N.C. State raised interest in college baseball to levels previously unseen in North Carolina.

Here’s a look back at some of the most memorable moments for both teams:

The start

For the first two months of the season, the Tar Heels were nearly as unbeatable as any college baseball team has ever been. After winning their first 16 games, UNC didn’t suffer a loss until March 15 at Miami. The Tar Heels won nine more consecutive games before suffering their second loss.

And when UNC Wilmington came to town on April 23, the Tar Heels were 39-2 and off to their best start in school history. UNC eventually came back down to Earth – it was never going to keep up such a torrid pace of victories – but not by much. The Tar Heels’ 59 victories set a single-season school record.

The start of an identity

North Carolina received a well-earned reputation during the postseason of being a never-say-die team – the kind that kept coming back again and again. UNC built the character that allowed for such success long before the postseason, but its knack for comebacks might have started in the ACC tournament with a 14-inning victory against Clemson.

The Tar Heels entered the ninth inning of that game trailing by five runs. They were down to their final out when Brian Holberton, the junior catcher and left fielder, hit a three-run home run to tie the game. UNC eventually prevailed in a 12-7 victory that lasted 14 innings and about five and a half hours.

Victory in 18

UNC’s victory against Clemson in the ACC tournament provided the kind of drama that doesn’t come around too often. Which makes what happened the next night in the ACC tournament all the more incredible.

The UNC-N.C. State game in the ACC tournament served, in effect, as the tournament semifinals. The winner was guaranteed to advance to the tournament championship game.

A crowd of more than 11,000 came to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to watch, and those who remained for 18 innings couldn’t have been disappointed. How good was this game? So good that by the time it ended, Carlos Rodon’s performance was but a footnote.

The N.C. State sophomore allowed one unearned run in 10 innings, but UNC’s Cody Stubbs came through with the game-winning hit in the 18th inning. In an old rivalry, this might have been the best baseball game ever been UNC and N.C. State.

Cherry seizes the day

UNC’s 18-inning victory against N.C. State put the Tar Heels in the ACC tournament championship game against Virginia Tech. But there was only one small problem: UNC’s pitching staff was spent after the Tar Heels had played 32 innings in the previous two days.

Fox and Scott Forbes, the Tar Heels’ pitching coach, turned to the most unlikely of pitchers to start the championship game: freshman Taylore Cherry. Entering the championship game, Cherry had pitched 3 1/3 innings all season. He pitched five innings and allowed five hits and one run in the championship victory against the Hokies.

A super comeback, and a Super Regional comeback

In the span of eight days, the Tar Heels kept their season alive with a pair of come-from-behind victories in elimination games in the NCAA tournament. The first of those came in what Fox said might have been the greatest game he’d ever been a part of.

UNC led Florida Atlantic by four runs entering the ninth inning. But the Owls scored six times, with four of the runs coming on a go-ahead grand slam with two outs. In the bottom half of the inning, UNC second baseman Mike Zolk tied the game with an RBI single to right.

The Owls again used a multi-home run to take control of the game in 12th, this time going ahead 11-8 on a three-run home run. And again, the Tar Heels tied it with an RBI from Zolk. Finally, in the 13th, UNC prevailed with a 12-11 victory after another game-winning hit from Stubbs.

The victory eight days later against South Carolina was less dramatic, but no less important. When UNC came to bat in the sixth inning, the Gamecocks held a 4-2 lead. But the Tar Heels scored three times in the sixth and hung on for a 5-4 victory that sent them to Omaha and the College World Series.

Revenge against a rival

UNC’s 8-1 defeat against N.C. State a week ago sent the Tar Heels to the loser’s bracket in the College World Series. But the Tar Heels received the final word in the fifth and final meeting between the rivals.

UNC’s 7-0 victory against N.C. State on Thursday night ended the Wolfpack’s season, and it briefly kept alive the Tar Heels’ chances of reaching the championship series. UNC’s season instead ended one night later with the loss against UCLA.

In their final victory of the season, the Tar Heels scored twice against Rodon, who started against UNC for the second time in five days. Then UNC blew the game open in the later innings.

For the Wolfpack, it was the final game of the season. For the Tar Heels, it was their final victory.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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