UNC's Dallas Tessar slides safely into home
It’s something that has been eating away at North Carolina’s Tar Heels for almost a year:
The loss to FSU came in the championship game of the 2017 ACC Baseball Championship, played last year at Slugger Field in Louisville, Ky.
That stung, but was not nearly as painful as the loss to Davidson. That was in the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional at Boshamer Stadium, ending the season for the Tar Heels, the No. 2 national seed in the NCAAs.
Davidson, making its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, had stunned UNC 8-4 in its first regional game. Two days later, the Wildcats did it again.
“After the misery we had that night, a bunch of us didn’t want to leave the stadium,” UNC’s Kyle Datres, a junior third baseman, said Saturday.
A year later, it’s time to begin anew. The ACC Championship is back in Durham and the Tar Heels the No. 1 overall seed for the first time since 2013, winning the Coastal Division for a second straight year and finishing 22-8 in the ACC.
“That was our goal from the beginning of the year, what we all wrote down on our goal sheets,” sophomore shortstop Ike Freeman said.
UNC (37-17), which faces No. 12-seed Pitt on Wednesday in the ACC tournament, again has positioned itself to be one of the top eight national seeds for the NCAA tournament. The No. 6 Tar Heels again could host a regional at Boshamer Stadium, then an NCAA super regional should they advance.
“Last year kind of came to a halt out of nowhere,” Datres said. “We weren’t expecting that. We definitely remember that and will use it to our advantage this year.”
UNC coach Mike Fox likes that attitude and his players’ determination to make amends — but only to a point.
“I think it’s been in the back of everybody’s mind all year long, let’s try to get back, get back to that position again,” he said. “Maybe we’ve done that already, maybe we haven’t. We’ll see how it all plays out.
“Certainly that was a pretty powerful motivator for the guys to kind of put in the recesses of their minds. I didn’t want them to dwell on it. I just wanted them to enjoy playing and competing.”
The early part of the Tar Heels’ season had some rough patches, some trying moments.
UNC was 4-5 in February, taking a 12-0 pounding from East Carolina. Sophomore pitcher Gianluca Dalatri, so impressive as a freshman, developed an elbow problem and was lost late in February. Centerfielder Brandon Riley, one of UNC’s most dependable hitters, was batting .095. Confidence was ebbing.
The Tar Heels lost their first ACC series in March, dropping two of three at Louisville. But the bats came alive in a sweep of Pittsburgh at Boshamer, UNC outscoring the Panthers 32-5, and the season steadied.
UNC won 21 of its last 27 ACC games, with the only series loss to Duke this month. The Tar Heels swept N.C. State in Raleigh on the final weekend of April, a program first.
The Heels are hitting .283 for the season — Datres the team leader at .344, Riley improving to .301. Dalatri returned Saturday, pitching four tidy innings in the 6-1 win over Virginia Tech as a warmup for the postseason. The defense has been sharp.
The Tar Heels are missing two injured players — catcher Cody Roberts (groin surgery) and Ben Casparius (foot stress fracture), a versatile freshman who has helped the Tar Heels at bat and as a relief pitcher. Their availability for the postseason is uncertain.
“The biggest compliment I can pay this team is how competitive they are,” Fox said. “They’re a really tough bunch.”