‘This is the hardest part of coaching’
They had tears in their eyes as they sat down at the podium awaiting questions from reporters. The 11-6 loss to Oregon State was still fresh on their minds.
Senior Zack Gahagan and junior Kyle Datres had come to North Carolina to help get their team back to the College World Series. It had been five years since UNC had made it to college baseball's biggest stage.
"I wanted to get these guys back to Omaha, and we made it," Gahagan said, his voice cracking.
But they didn't expect it to end this way. Few did.
UNC had a three-run lead entering the eighth inning. Six more outs.
But in college baseball, and against a team like Oregon State (51-11-1), no lead is a comfortable. The Beavers scored eight runs in the final two innings to beat the Tar Heels 11-6 late Wednesday night.
No. 6 UNC (45-20) has now been eliminated, and its quest for its first College World Series in program history has come to an end. It was Oregon State which beat UNC in the College World Series final in 2006 and 2007, the last time UNC had made it to a final.
"This is the hardest part of coaching. The end," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "This group of kids, you're not going to have them again."
In some ways, while it didn't end the way they wanted, this season was a success. At worst it was a step in the right direction.
From 2006 to 2013, UNC had made it to the College World Series six times. It hadn't made it back until this season.
Last season, as a No. 2 national seed, UNC was expected to go far. But it lost in the Regional Round.
But the Tar Heels used that loss as motivation in the offseason.
They started the 2018 regular season with a 7-7 record, but finished strong. By season's end they had earned a No. 6 national seed in the NCAA tournament. They broke through this year by breezing through the regional and super regional Rounds.
"This team just had something about them," Fox said. "I think it had a lot to do with last year. You know, Brandon Riley told me he woke up in the middle of the night and had nightmares after we lost last year sliding into home. Just what he could have done different, could he have slid different.
"He said it took him all summer to get over that loss... I think those kids came back in the fall and there was nothing that was going to get in their way."
First though, UNC had to go through Oregon State for a second time to stay alive.
UNC beat Oregon State 8-6 in the first game of the College World Series on Saturday. But this time, the stakes were higher, as the loser would go home.
UNC found itself in an elimination game because it lost to Mississippi State 12-2 on Tuesday. It was its first loss of the NCAA tournament. Oregon State faced elimination because of the loss to UNC.
Both teams put out their best pitchers. For Oregon State, it was Luke Heimlich. For UNC, it was Cooper Criswell. But both struggled early and were pulled early. Through the first three innings, UNC and Oregon State were tied 3-3.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, UNC shortstop Ike Freeman hit an RBI-single to take the lead 4-3.
In the bottom of the sixth, junior third baseman Kyle Datres hit a two-run home run that hit the left field foul pole and stayed just fair, to give the Tar Heels a 6-3 lead.
"They punched us early, but I had full confidence in the guys that we would come back at them, and that's what we did, so we didn't go away easy," Datres said.
Meanwhile, freshman left-handed pitcher Caden O'Brien had been dealing in relief. He had pitched 4 1/3 innings, allowed two hits and struck out five batters.
But he finally ran out of gas in the top of the eighth inning, Fox said, and Oregon State took advantage with a leadoff double.
Fox again went to his bullpen, and the Beavers hammered away.
They loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the eighth inning with Oregon State sophomore Adley Rutschman, a .391 hitter, up to bat. Rutschman hit a three-run double that tied the game.
When Oregon State loaded the bases again, UNC relief pitcher Brett Daniels walked a batter, which scored another run, and the Beavers went ahead 7-6.
UNC had no answer in the bottom of the eighth inning. In the top of the ninth, Oregon State added four more runs and went on to win.