UNC's Mike Fox breaks down the Tar Heels 7-4 win over Stetson
It never gets old, not when you've been there six times already, not when you've never been, not when you're a senior who watched the class before you come up empty in their careers for the first time in more than a decade.
To whatever degree it may feel like North Carolina's birthright to go to the College World Series – “When I came here, that was the goal, to go to Omaha,” Cody Roberts said – that doesn't take away from the joy of actually going there, especially when it has been a few years.
For Mike Fox, taking his seventh UNC team to Omaha in a 13-year span, this one was novel because of this team's unusual path to this spot. The Tar Heels started 7-7, lost their ace to injury for most of the season, has their status as a national seed questioned and they lacked the kind of incendiary first-round talent that pushed the Tar Heels into this position so many times before, but found a way nonetheless.
After the Tar Heels swept Stetson with a 7-5 win Saturday, this becomes yet another page in Fox's amazing legacy at North Carolina, and it would be somewhat fitting if this was the team to deliver the national title he lacks when its more talented predecessors could not, just as it finally delivered him ACC coach of the year honors for the first time after two decades of sustained excellence.
“What's different about this one? I've got a whole group of different in there,” Fox said.
For senior Zack Gahagan, who last spring watched the first senior class since 2005 leave without getting this far, came back to school just for this chance – but also to try to fix the chemistry in the team, to reverse whatever had gone wrong in 2014 and 2015 when the Tar Heels missed the tournament, and last spring when they were upset by Davidson as the No. 1 national seed.
“Our first two years, we didn't have that, and that's what we wanted to change,” Gahagan said. “We wanted to change the culture and we were able to do that.”
Gahaghan made the game's biggest defensive play, backhanding a ground ball up the middle and lobbing a high, arcing throw to first to end the third after Stetson had already scored two runs and had runners on second and third.
“I called it the Steph Curry throw: Throw it and look away,” Gahagan said.
“Hope for the best,” third baseman Kyle Datres said.
It took plays like that, because unquestionably, the Tar Heels had to earn this. The Hatters came into the series on an 18-game winning streak and Stetson had a chance to either go ahead or win both games in the ninth, with Brooks Wilson at bat in both cases. Friday, he hit a deep fly to left that wasn't quite deep enough with the bases loaded; Saturday, he was the potential winning run when he launched a shot to center with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
North Carolina catcher Brandon Martorano put his hands on his head in despair. “I thought I got it,” Wilson said. In right field, Roberts saw center-fielder Brandon Riley chasing it down, but wasn't sure whether the ball would get to the wall first or not. Riley got there, and all Roberts could say as they ran in to celebrate was “Great catch!” Those were the only words he could get out of his mouth.
North Carolina's offense got the attention over the weekend, chasing Stetson's high-powered aces early in both games, but it was the Tar Heels' defense that assured their destiny. It wasn't just Gahagan's snag or Riley's catch; Stetson coach Steve Trimper had a laundry list of plays he thought would have generated runs if not for North Carolina's astute positioning or defensive acumen.
College baseball has its warts, but this super regional represented the game at its best, full of drama, both games in the balance until the final out of the ninth inning, played in front of a festive crowd, contested between a national power looking to restore its position and an upstart that had, until Friday, forgotten what it was like to lose.
The margins in both games were thin, but the Tar Heels, as they increasingly have as the season has progressed, found a way through. They found a way to get back where they believe they belong.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock