OMAHA, NE – “The end of the year, it always stinks.”
Those were UNC Head coach Mike Fox’s sentiments following Friday’s disappointing 4-1 loss to UCLA that knocked the Tar Heels out of the College World Series.
Let’s be honest. There is never a good time to lose. But there can only be one team who doesn’t end their season on a loss. It is both the intrigue and cruelty of postseason tournament play. A team that dominates all season (much like Carolina), can see their season end abruptly at any time. And baseball only exacerbates this effect, as sometimes all it takes is a hot ace on the mound to befuddle the best of lineups.
And unfortunately, the Diamond Heels’ designs on getting their hands on the program’s first NCAA College World Series title fell through late Friday evening, but not before an attempt at a signature ninth inning rally that this UNC squad seemingly patented in their 2013 campaign. Heck, the Heels practically turned the miraculous into the mundane with their late-game heroics, especially late in the season.
“What we did in the ninth inning is just indicative of our kids and how we played all year,” Mike Fox reflected postgame.
Boy, that statement could not ring any truer.
Can you recall the ACC tournament? In what felt like a full mini-season all to itself, UNC survived back-to-back extra inning ballgames against Clemson and NC State just to advance to the championship game where they ultimately defeated the Hokies of Virginia Tech. The sheer will and determination of the UNC squad was put on full display in those late night, no, early morning nail biting contests needed just to secure their own conference crown.
And then it was on to the NCAA tournament. As the number one overall seed, the Tar Heels undoubtedly felt a mountain of pressure along with having a gigantic target on their backs for other upstart teams. And it showed. Unheralded Florida Atlantic forced UNC to an elimination game.
The heart of a champion came out once again for the Tar Heels as they rallied back on multiple occasions to survive the home run barrages of the FAU squad to advance and win a game that Fox remarked was one of the greatest ones he had ever been a part of.
Super Regionals came next. North Carolina’s neighbors to the South were on deck. And wow, what a series it was. Not surprisingly, the Tar Heels found themselves knee deep in another elimination game. And they came up with the goods once again, scraping out a 5-4 decision over the ever-tough South Carolina Gamecocks to yet again book their tickets to Omaha.
The adversity the Tar Heels team continually faced this postseason was matched and exceeded by their “never say die” attitudes that cannot be taught. This team had more fight in them than Mike Tyson. The team thrived with their backs against the wall. Houdini-esque escapes were all but routine. And maybe it finally caught up to them on Friday night. Who knows?
But let’s remember the 2013 Diamond Heels for their admirable fighting spirit and all their unbelievable accomplishments including a school record 59 wins, a school record for most runs scored in a season, the ACC regular season and tournament titles, and another trip to Omaha.
Coach Fox, himself, dubbed this year’s squad “a coach’s dream.” He went on to add that it had been one of his most fun seasons. And this is coming from a man who has been at the helm of Tar Heel baseball since 1999. Just think of all the remarkable teams we have witnessed since then.
So let’s take a cue from Mr. Fox and savor what we have witnessed. What a wild ride it has been. Tar Heel nation was treated to so many unforgettable thrills along the way. And yes, there was no championship ring at the end of the day. But sometimes, in life and in baseball, it is the journey it took to even get there in the first place that ends up being the sweetest part of all.