In hindsight, all these months later, Mike Fox acknowledged that it was “maybe a little corny,” as he put it on Monday, to pull those big, blue NCAA logo stickers off the outfield walls at Boshamer Stadium. But that’s what he did, hoping the sight might inspire his team.
By then it had been two long years since the North Carolina baseball team had made the NCAA tournament, after all, and it’d been three years since the Tar Heels had hosted an NCAA tournament regional. When a team hosts one of those, the NCAA stickers go up on the outfield walls. For years UNC left them there.
And so Fox, in his 19th season as UNC’s coach, thought it might be “a little symbolic” to take them down – perhaps motivating, too. He recalled the story on Monday afternoon, not long after he and his team had gathered to watch the NCAA tournament selection show.
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The past two years, he and his players had done the same thing, gathering nervously only to wait for a moment that never arrived. Now, the only suspense was how high of a national seed the Tar Heels had earned. They didn’t have to wait long to find out.
The announcers on the broadcast unveiled the top eight national seeds one-by-one. There, at No. 1, was Oregon State, which has lost just four times this season. And then, at No. 2, UNC. When the news appeared on screen, Fox and his players received it with enthusiastic but polite applause. Nobody seemed surprised.
UNC will host Davidson, the No. 4 seed in the Chapel Hill region, at 6 p.m. on Friday. Before that game, at 1 p.m., Florida Gulf Coast, the region’s No. 2 seed, will play against No. 3 seed Michigan. The winner of the region will play against the winner of the Houston region, where Houston is the top seed.
Though UNC expected a high seed, seeing it become reality brought new emotions. Only UNC’s oldest players, its seniors, have played in the NCAA tournament. None of them have been around long enough to see the Tar Heels host a regional, which they did in 2013 on the way to the College World Series.
“Obviously, we haven’t made it in the past couple of years, so the fact that we’re in is really humbling,” said J.B. Bukauskas, UNC’s No. 1 starter who earned ACC Pitcher of the Year honors.
This will be the seventh time in 11 years the Tar Heels have hosted a regional. That sort of consistency is elusive and yet that is something of an odd stat, too, considering that, for this UNC team, this is a completely foreign experience.
In each of the past two seasons, the Tar Heels found themselves on the outside of the tournament, looking in. Those failures fueled Fox’s players, and he told the dozens of fans who’d gathered to watch the selection show on the scoreboard that this was his favorite group of players he’d ever coached.
Later, after some perspective set in, Fox said he “should probably be careful with that.”
“Because I’ve had fun with a lot of teams here, obviously,” he said.
None, though, accomplished what these Tar Heels have. After even failing to reach the ACC tournament a season ago, UNC set school records for conference victories (23) and won all 10 of its ACC series, which was also a school record.
UNC owes its success to a variety of factors: a lineup that doesn’t present many weaknesses, led by All-ACC position players Brian Miller and Logan Warmoth; the pitching staff, as statistically strong as just about any, led by Bukauskas; and a closer, Josh Hiatt, who at times has been unhittable.
Beyond the quantifiable, though, are the intangibles, and those have proven equally important. Recent UNC teams were, at times, plagued by chemistry problems – ones that manifested as defeats piled up. Now those are but a distant, if unpleasant, memory.
“They’re just fun,” Fox said of his players. “I’ve said it before, I don’t have a dud in the group. ... We have some comics on the team, some pranksters. Just kind of the whole gamut. We have some serious ones, we have ones that get on you. I mean, it’s a mixture that just kind of all works.”
The Tar Heels’ entire season has been leading to this point, to the start of the NCAA tournament. It has been a season of building the program back to where it was, and where Fox and his players believe it should remain.
Before the season began, UNC’s team banquet welcomed the 2007 team that reached the College World Series. Current players felt unease and tension. A decade ago the Tar Heels ended their season in Omaha, while nobody on this team had ever even been a part of a team that has hosted a regional.
That will change on Friday. It has been years in the making. The Tar Heels will be the overwhelming favorite to advance out of this weekend, though Davidson did push UNC earlier this season, before the Tar Heels prevailed with a 7-6 victory in 10 innings.
“We believed it, but it’s easier said than done,” said Miller, a junior outfielder and former standout at Millbrook High in Raleigh. “We wanted the same thing the last two years, but didn’t get it done.”
That was why Fox found himself peeling off those old NCAA logo stickers back in the fall. It was a small gesture, but one he hoped resonated with players who’d grown accustomed to seeing them on the wall. When he peeled them off they fell apart, perhaps a fitting metaphor for fragility of enduring success.
“They pretty much disintegrate,” he said. “They were from 2013, so ...”
As it turns out, such signage has to be earned. New NCAA stickers will arrive this week. For the first time in four years, Boshamer Stadium will be dressed up to host a regional, and the Tar Heels will enter the NCAA tournament among the favorites to reach the College World Series.
UNC vs. Davidson
When: 6 p.m., Friday
Where: Boshamer Stadium, Chapel Hill