North Carolina

Resurgent UNC baseball enters postseason with title aspirations once again

North Carolina head coach Mike Fox watches during UNC's 6-3 victory over Clemson in the ACC Baseball tournament at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on May 22, 2015.
North Carolina head coach Mike Fox watches during UNC's 6-3 victory over Clemson in the ACC Baseball tournament at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on May 22, 2015. ehyman@newsobserver.com

In all of his years at North Carolina, 18 of them now as the Tar Heels’ head baseball coach, Mike Fox had never experienced the kind of limbo in which he found himself in about a year ago at this time.

The Tar Heels were out of the ACC tournament – they’d failed to qualify for it for the first time in school history – and then they found themselves hoping against hope for an NCAA tournament bid that never came. It was a different feeling, and environment, for a program long accustomed to success.

One year later things are back to normal, Fox in charge of a team with College World Series aspirations, and the characteristics to make it there. UNC begins play in the ACC tournament on Wednesday in Louisville, Ky., where the Tar Heels, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, will face Boston College. After so much stress approaching the ACC tournament in recent years, there is none now for UNC, ranked second nationally.

Fox attempted to put that into perspective, the juxtaposition between the now and then. What would it be like, once again, to enter the postseason knowing that his team is assured of hosting an NCAA tournament regional, and essentially assured of hosting a Super Regional, if it advances that far?

“Ask her,” Fox said with a laugh after his team’s 9-7 victory against Duke on Saturday, nodding toward his wife, Cheryl. “Ask her. Yeah, that’s always a good feeling – just knowing that you’re in, certainly.”

Clearly, the past few Mays had been stressful months in the Fox household. Under Fox’s leadership, UNC built one of the nation’s best baseball programs, one that appeared in the College World Series six times between 2006 and 2013.

And then, after that most recent trip to Omaha in 2013, came the next three seasons, some of the most challenging of Fox’s coaching career. The Tar Heels scraped their way into the NCAA tournament in 2014, but missed it in 2015 and ’16 – the first time since 1996 and ’97 that UNC failed to reach the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons.

This season has been something of a renaissance, a throwback to the good times. For UNC’s oldest players, its juniors and seniors, it has been a resurgence two or three years in the making. Its seniors have only played in the NCAA tournament once. The juniors never have.

UNC’s older players, especially, are keenly aware of the program’s history, and their place in it. Adam Pate, one of the team’s senior leaders, recently recalled attending UNC banquets where some of the Tar Heels’ best baseball teams have been recognized.

“I was in middle school watching them play,” he said. “It was kind of a reminder to be like, wow, (these are) the teams that I remember watching on TV, the teams that played Oregon State in the (national) championship, the teams that brought Carolina to the standard that we’re at now.”

As Fox and his players have learned the past few years, though, success doesn’t come automatically. A lack of timely hitting and a lack of cohesion, at times, derailed UNC’s past two teams, both of which were among the final teams left out of the NCAA tournament field.

This season, UNC (44-11, 23-7 ACC) rebuilt itself with a combination of veteran leadership, top-flight pitching – junior J.B. Bukauskas, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, is one of the best starters in the country – and an infusion of freshmen talent. Like, for instance, Ashton McGee, a .339 hitter and the ACC Freshman of the Year.

Fellow freshman Josh Hiatt, a right-hander from Charlotte, has become arguably the best closer in school history. And junior shortstop Logan Warmoth and junior center fielder Brian Miller, a former standout at Millbrook High in Raleigh, also earned first-team All-ACC honors.

Beneath the production, the pain of past failure has simmered. UNC ended last season with a disappointing defeat at N.C. State to end the regular season, a loss that knocked the Tar Heels out of the ACC tournament. Then the Tar Heels gathered a little more than a week later for the NCAA tournament selection show. Their name never appeared.

The goal when the team reconvened for fall workouts, Fox said, was simple enough: “Be better – like, better like our program has been.” That didn’t mean merely improving from 13-17 in the ACC to 15-15. It meant becoming a contender again. The Tar Heels perhaps exceeded their own expectations, and won all 10 of their ACC series and set a school record with 23 ACC victories.

“I give our juniors and seniors all the credit,” Fox said. “I mean, they were so upset and unhappy last year, and they told me – they told themselves – we don’t want to be the class that leaves here not playing in a regional.”

After the record-setting 23rd victory, which came on Saturday against Duke, Miller, the All-ACC center fielder, said he was “speechless” about setting the school record for conference victories. All of those great teams during the past 10 years or so, and he and his teammates have won more ACC games than any of them.

Last year the Tar Heels had been hoping to squeak into the ACC tournament before closing the season with that loss at N.C. State. This season, Fox said, the primary goal in Louisville, aside from winning, will be to “come back totally healthy.”

A conference championship would be a worthy accomplishment, indeed. Still, Fox and his players enter the postseason with greater goals, assured of playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

UNC’s ACC tournament schedule

Wednesday: UNC vs. Boston College, 3 p.m.

Friday: UNC vs. N.C. State, 7 p.m.

All games will be televised by Fox Sports Carolinas.

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