UNC hopes for one final role reversal entering the NCAA baseball tournament

acarter@newsobserver.comMay 29, 2014 

— Even with all that North Carolina lost from a season ago – all the All-ACC players and all the Major League draft picks – there was still a sense entering the season that the Tar Heels would persevere. That maybe, even, it would be easy – or certainly easier than it has been.

And why not? UNC under coach Mike Fox has emerged as one of the most consistently good teams in the nation – an annual contender to make it to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series. Success, when it becomes so familiar, can become assumed, too.

So yes, UNC sophomore center fielder Skye Bolt said recently, there was a sense of complacency.

“We had a really strong fall,” Bolt said recently, describing the baseball equivalent of football spring practice. “And I think it put some complacency in the minds of some of us young guys.

“I mean, some of the older guys have been here and done it. Even they fell into the trap of thinking a little bit of saying, you know, we’ve refueled what we lost with some of these freshmen – we’ve got a lot of talent.”

Even amid all the personnel losses from a season ago, the Tar Heels’ talent has rarely been in doubt. Other things have been, though, during a season that has been uncharacteristically mediocre – at least by UNC’s recent standard.

The Tar Heels on Friday begin play in the NCAA tournament, and they’re in the field for the 13th consecutive year. During that streak, though, no other UNC team has entered the tournament with as few victories as this one.

A season ago, the Tar Heels entered the tournament with 52 wins. They were the No. 1 national seed. During the past 12 years, UNC has entered the NCAA tournament with an average of 43 victories.

This season, the Tar Heels enter the tournament with 34 victories, and as one of the final at-large teams to make the field. In most years Fox and his players have gathered to watch the tournament selection show without worry about whether they’d made it. This year, players cheered when they saw UNC’s name pop up on the screen.

“It’s something that we expect to be in,” Bolt said of the NCAA tournament. “The excitement lasted for all of 10 minutes and then it was back to what is normal and I guess is the norm for this program.”

But times haven’t been normal this season for Bolt and his teammates. UNC, which has hosted NCAA tournament regionals in each of the past three seasons, is starting the tournament on the road for the first time since 2010.

The Tar Heels arrived in Gainesville, Fla., as the No. 3 seed in the four-team regional. If the Tar Heels defeat second-seeded Long Beach State on Friday, they’d likely play Florida – the No. 2 national seed – on Saturday.

A Saturday meeting with No. 4 seed College of Charleston wouldn’t exactly be comforting, either. UNC lost a three-game series to College of Charleston to start the season.

From that point on, the Tar Heels have endured a role reversal. They slid out of the national polls. They lost against East Carolina - twice - and also lost games against Wintrhop and Coastal Carolina. They became underdogs, needing to succeed in must-win games in recent weeks against Florida State and Miami and N.C. State just to make it to this point.

“I think we can use that maybe to our advantage,” Fox said of the underdog mentality. “Being in this position, it is going to be quite different. You know, when you’re hosting and you’re playing at home and you’re a number one seed or a national seed – I mean, there’s pressure on you.

“You’re expected to win and you’re at home. And this is different. And I hope that difference will help us.”

Fox said there was “a little bit of a sigh of relief” that UNC made the field at all. The Tar Heels last missed the NCAA tournament in 2001, in Fox’s third season. Since then, he has built a program with year-in, year-out expectations of reaching Omaha.

The reason for the decline this season isn’t difficult to define. UNC lost its best hitter, Colin Moran, and best pitcher, Kent Emanuel, from last season. Cody Stubbs and Brian Holberton, who also fueled the middle of UNC’s lineup, were seniors who became draft picks.

The Tar Heels’ pitching has often been good enough this season but their hitting has never come around. Skye Bolt and Landon Lassiter, a pair of freshman All-Americans last season, have struggled through long stretches this season, though Lassiter improved during the second half the season.

Bolt, who hit .321 a season ago with six home runs, enters the NCAA tournament batting .256 with three home runs – one of which came during the ACC tournament. His power numbers have suffered since he suffered a broken foot midway through last season, though he doesn’t use that as an excuse.

“I think that you can hold on to an injury, you can hold onto an out like that as long as you want to,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is I was playing some of my best ball this fall. So the injury has nothing to do with it.”

Fox has remained hopeful that eventually the offense will click – that the runs will come. And indeed, slowly but surely, the Tar Heels have been hitting better of late.

They scored 13 runs in an important victory against Maryland in the ACC tournament, and 11 runs against Miami – one of the best teams in the nation – in another critical victory on May 16.

“We’ve been up and down offensively because we just haven’t had everybody really swinging it at the level that they’re capable of consistently,” Fox said. “And I think more than anything else, that’s where we’ve probably been a little bit better down the stretch.”

If the hitting comes around at long last then, then UNC might have a chance to stick around for a while. It has been one of the best pitching teams in the country, and Trent Thornton, the sophomore right-hander who enters the tournament with a 2.24 ERA and 80 strikeouts has more often than not provided his team with a chance.

Thornton will start on Friday against Long Beach State. He earlier this week spoke of the importance of winning the first game in the tournament’s double-elimination format, and he spoke of the unpredictable nature of this time of year. For once, it’d be surprising if UNC mounted a postseason run.

“You look at last year,” Thornton said, “and we were number one seed and almost lost a game to Florida Atlantic trying to get to a Super Regional. So anything can happen now.”

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

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