Sports

This was a good start for UNC, but they're still a long way from that College World Series title

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.

Every postseason starts anew, and still for North Carolina, there's never any way to really disconnect from the past. It's always there, looming, whether it's that run of six College World Series in eight years or last year's home upset at the hands of Davidson after two years out of the tournament entirely.

It can be a blessing and a burden, this run of tournament success and a major-league pipeline any program would envy, and yet a national title is the only thing missing from Mike Fox's impressive resume despite putting together so many teams with the talent to win one and the opportunity to do it.

As the No. 6 national seed, the Tar Heels are the favorite to emerge from their quadrant of the bracket and end a four-year College World Series “drought,” and they did nothing to disabuse those notions in Friday's seamless 11-0 opening win over North Carolina A&T, a performance that left little room for complaint.

“The bacon this morning was too crispy?” was the gravest grumble Fox could conjure, and a year after the Tar Heels stumbled in this spot against Davidson they left no doubt against the Aggies.

And thus begins another NCAA tournament for North Carolina where anything short of a trip to Omaha would be a disappointment and a national title is potentially within reach. That's been true for the better part of two decades, a run of excellence that has been both staggering in its breadth and frustrating in the elusiveness of that long-sought championship.

The fact that the Tar Heels have achieved so much and yet so often have left their fans wanting more is their unique circumstance, the purgatory of being unquestionably elite without ever being the unquestioned best.

This team may actually face less pressure in that regard, since the weight of recent achievement has somewhat lifted. Since the Tar Heels' last Omaha visit in 2013, they exited early on the road as the No. 3 seed in Florida's regional in 2014, missed the tournament in 2015 and 2016 and were shocked by fourth-seeded Davidson at home last spring as the No. 2 national seed.

And if this group needed a reminder of how fickle baseball can be, last week's ACC tournament loss to Pittsburgh – as the No. 1 seed – should have done the job, perhaps not an upset on the scale of Davidson but no less surprising given the way North Carolina stormed home in the regular season.

The Tar Heels were less forgiving Friday, taking control of the game with a five-run fourth inning highlighted by Michael Busch's long three-run blast over the pine trees in deep center, putting a scare into the construction workers laboring away on UNC's new field-hockey stadium. The Aggies started the game with a single but had only four baserunners the rest of the way.

With Cody Roberts back from his gruesome injury – he needed surgery and missed three weeks after taking a foul tip to the groin while catching – in right field, and the Tar Heels piling up double-digit runs with plenty of time to rest before Saturday night's game against Purdue or Houston, it's hard to imagine this particular tournament getting off to a better start.

That's a welcome development for the Tar Heels, considering how last year's tournament started. As always, with them, they've set the bar so high that all that matters is how they finish.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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