Sports

After 2017 NCAA baseball tournament loss, Tar Heels 'don't want that feeling again'

Watch the Tar Heels practice, hear Mike Fox’s take on NCAA play

Coach Mike Fox praises his team for their hard work in making the tournament and earning hosting rights. Fox also updates the status of catcher Cody Roberts on Friday, May 31, 2018 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill.
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Coach Mike Fox praises his team for their hard work in making the tournament and earning hosting rights. Fox also updates the status of catcher Cody Roberts on Friday, May 31, 2018 at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill.

It's been hard to forget. The way it ended so quickly.

As a No. 2 national seed last season, North Carolina's baseball team was a favorite to win its regional. And they wanted to win it all.

But Davidson, which came into the regional as the heavy underdogs, put a stop to that. The Wildcats beat the Tar Heels twice, including in the regional finals 2-1, sending UNC home with nothing left to play for.

"I think the one thing we learned from last year is a national seed doesn't really matter if you can't get past your regional," junior outfielder Brandon Riley said.

The UNC players have used those losses to Davidson as motivation as it prepared for this season. Now, the Tar Heels are back in the postseason, hosting another regional, right where it all ended. The difference though, is that they know that nothing is guaranteed.

"We definitely don't want that feeling again," Riley said Thursday after practice. "So I think that's kind of driven everybody to come out here every day and work like it could be your last day. Like it could be your last practice."

On Friday, No. 1 UNC (38-18) will play No. 4 N.C. A&T (32-23) in Chapel Hill at 2 p.m., a team the Tar Heels beat 1-0 on March 13. On Saturday, UNC could play No. 2 Purdue (37-19) or No. 3 Houston (36-23).

The Tar Heels, the No. 6 seed in the tournament, come into the regional having beat Georgia Tech 10-1 in the ACC tournament on May 25. UNC lost to Pittsburgh 4-5 in its previous game and didn't get past pool play.

UNC coach Mike Fox said junior right-handed pitcher Cooper Criswell (4-2, 3.19 ERA) will start against N.C. A&T, and sophomore right-handed pitcher Gianluca Dalatri (1-2, 2.50 ERA) will start in Saturday's game. Dalatri has pitched in two games since returning from elbow soreness that sidelined him for 12 weeks earlier in the season. In those two starts, he has pitched nine scoreless innings and given up on four hits. He recorded his first win in his latest start against Georgia Tech.

UNC senior infielder Zack Gahagan said the key to getting out of this regional is consistency with pitching and defense. He said it has been the motto for the team all season. When the Tar Heels score six or more runs, they are 31-0. Five players hit better than .300 in ACC play. They include sophomore shortstop Ike Freeman (.324), redshirt sophomore right fielder Dallas Tessar (.319), sophomore first baseman Michael Busch (.317), junior third baseman Kyle Datres (.312) and Riley (.311).

"When we pitch and play defense, that's the whole deal with us," Gahagan said. "If we score six runs, we're going to shut them down on the mound. So as long as we pitch and play defense, and score six runs, I think we're going to be alright."

UNC is also 23-6 at home this season. It has won 13 consecutive games at home.

None of the current players have made it to a College World Series. Winning their regional and then super regional would get them there. The last time UNC got that far was in 2013. But with last year's loss to Davidson, the Tar Heels hope this year will be different.

Last season, there were few players that had experienced the NCAA tournament. UNC missed the tournament in 2015 and 2016. Fox said the loss last season has been a powerful motivator for his team, especially for the 18 or 20 players who have returned.

"It was gut-wrenching last year," Fox said. "It's a feeling that doesn't go away. Over time it will, but if we're able to win a regional it'll maybe go away forever, maybe. I don't know.

"I hope so."

Chapel Hill Regional

Friday's games

No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 N.C. A&T, 2 p.m. (ESPN3)

No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 3 Houston, 7 p.m. (ESPN3)

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Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander
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