UNC holds on to beat Stetson, advances to 11th College World Series
After the final out of the game, all of the players ran out onto the pitcher's mound — some with water bottles in hand — and celebrated with a dog pile.
North Carolina's baseball team had just beat No. 11 Stetson 7-5 in its Super Regional for the second consecutive time. That means the Tar Heels advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. It's the first time since 2013 that the Tar Heels have made it this far.
"Being a senior, this is why I came back," senior Zack Gahagan said. "I told coach at the beginning at the year, this is what I want to do, and this is just an amazing feeling."
Before No. 6 UNC's Super Regional series, the talk was that Stetson (48-13) had one of the best pitching staffs in college baseball — perhaps the best.
The numbers supported that.
All four of its starting pitchers had ERAs below 3. Three were drafted in this week's MLB draft. And as a team, Stetson led the country with a 2.56 ERA, well ahead of the next team, Stanford, which had a 2.81 ERA.
But in both of its games, UNC (43-18) had no trouble with Stetson's pitchers. The Tar Heels combined for 23 hits in the two games, and on Saturday, they won, solidifying one of eight spots in the College World Series.
Last season, UNC lost in the Regional Round, and in 2015 and 2016, it failed to make the tournament. In 2014, the Tar Heels also lost in the Regional Round.
But this season, with the sting of last year's defeat, the Tar Heels were determined this postseason would be different.
"What happened last year?" junior third baseman Kyle Datres quipped.
And it has been different. Since the start of the NCAA tournament, UNC has not lost a game. It won three games in the Regional round and the two games here.
"This is a special group," UNC coach Mike Fox said after the game. "This is one of the more special teams that I've been able to coach here. There's something about them.
"You've got to be a little good and a little lucky to get to this point."
The Tar Heels' hitting in particular has been strong.
Stetson pitcher Jack Perkins, who came into the game with an 11-2 record and a 2.34 ERA, lasted only 2 1/3 innings on Saturday, his shortest start of the season. He gave up nine hits and six runs before being pulled from the game.
The Tar Heels started the game off hot in the first inning.
They batted through the order, picking up six hits, including three RBI doubles. The scoring started with junior Cody Roberts, who hit an RBI double to left center field. Then came junior Brandon Riley, who hit one down the right field line, scoring Roberts.
Gahagan hit an RBI single that scored Riley. And Ashton McGee hit an RBI double that scored sophomore Ike Freeman.
"We just knew we had to try attack pitches that were in the zone and lay off the ones that were out," Roberts said. "And I think everybody did a really good job, especially that first inning.
"I think we all kind of just talked to each other after each at-bat and relayed it to the next person, and that's what helped us do what we did in that first inning."
Stetson's Jonathan Meola hit a solo home run in the bottom of the second inning to get the Hatters on the board, 4-1. But UNC added two more in the next inning.
Stetson picked up a good number of hits but often failed to cash in. Stetson was 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position on Saturday, after going 1-for-11 on Friday.
On the pitching side, UNC starter Gianluca Dalatri lasted 3 1/3 innings. He gave up eight hits and three runs. Freshman pitcher Caden O'Brien did a good job in relief for the Tar Heels, pitching the next two innings without giving up a run.
Stetson added a run in the bottom of the sixth inning and one in the bottom of the ninth to bring the score to 7-5. The Hatters had two runners on base with the game-winning run at the plate.
But relief pitcher Josh Hiatt closed out the game, and the Tar Heels advanced to their 11th College World Series in program history.