There’s no chance Omaha is prepared for this. Put these two teams on that stage, and there’s no telling what might happen Sunday. It took 18 innings to decide a winner in the ACC tournament, and both North Carolina and N.C. State have even more momentum now than they did then.
Two days after the Wolfpack booked its spot in the College World Series, the Tar Heels joined them Tuesday, falling behind again, coming back to win again, using ace Kent Emanuel in relief again, going to the College World Series again, for the sixth time in eight years.
After five days of rain, bad defense, more rain, worse defense, a collective meltdown by the North Carolina starting rotation, two strong relief outings from Trent Thornton and some clutch hitting, the Tar Heels finally emerged with a 5-4 win against South Carolina.
There’s nothing novel about the Tar Heels going to the College World Series, but after missing out last year, after everything they have been through to get this far this year, they might just appreciate it a bit more. Even coach Mike Fox jumped on the dogpile, for the first and, he said, likely last time.
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“This one’s a lot different,” Emanuel said. “Freshman year, when we won the second game of the (super regional), all the freshmen were talking about how that was a little too easy. It seemed like it happened real quick. That was definitely not the case this year.”
If there’s anything North Carolina and N.C. State have in common, it’s a flair for the dramatic. The Wolfpack clinched its spot with a walk-off win Saturday and a 17-inning win Sunday; not to be outdone, the Tar Heels had a walk-off win of their own Saturday and dug out of a hole of their own making Tuesday.
After Chaz Frank dropped a routine fly ball to center in the fifth to put South Carolina in the lead, the Tar Heels benefited from two misplays, an error and a walk with the bases loaded in the sixth, to take the lead for good.
It was yet another opportunistic offensive outburst from the Tar Heels, who haven’t really been the dominant hitting team they were in the regular season so far in the postseason, but have excelled at finding ways to score despite that. If their bats get cranked up in Omaha, look out.
Emanuel got two outs on two pitches to seal the victory three days after his last start – he only went 2 1/3 innings Saturday, part of a weekend where the three Carolina starters combined for 6 1/3 innings – and eight days after his controversial relief appearance in the 13-inning win against Florida Atlantic.
No controversy this time, just the first save of his career. Very little has come easy for the Tar Heels this postseason. That did.
So after the regional upset by St. John’s here last year, after scratching and clawing their way through the postseason this year, the Tar Heels are resuming their near-annual procession to Omaha, where they’ll face a local rival making its first appearance in 45 years.
“That’s how hard it is. It’s hard to get to Omaha,” Fox said. “We’re going six times in eight years, and I told my players last night, that’s mind-blowing to me. We’ll have our hands full, obviously. Right now, we just want to relish going.”
If last year taught them not to take it for granted, this year asked them for everything they had. They earned the right to savor it.