The seventh-seeded North Carolina baseball team, 32-23 overall and 15-15 in the ACC, will face rival and No. 10 seed N.C. State, 32-22 overall and 13-17 in conference, Tuesday at 11 a.m. in the ACC Tournament at NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro.
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The winner advances to pool B alongside No.2 Florida State, No. 3 Virginia and No. 6 Maryland.
UNC Head Coach Mike Fox says this matchup must have been destiny.
“The stars aligned didn’t they? My wife predicted that six weeks ago – that we’d be playing them, and sure enough, that’s the way it worked out,” Coach Fox says.
It appeared the Duel at the DBAP rainout at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park would prevent Carolina and N.C. State from meeting on the diamond this season, but as fate would have it, the two premier college baseball programs will collide in unfamiliar territory – needing a victory to turn NCAA Tournament aspirations into a stronger reality.
Coach Fox didn’t vote for the new ACC Tournament format that features an expanded field and play-in games. But perhaps it’s fitting his defending champion Tar Heels will be featuring in a morning first pitch against the rival Wolfpack in a tilt that is typically reserved for primetime billing.
Coach Fox says Carolina is approaching the game as a must-win scenario for a variety of reasons.
“We think we do. We’re going into it under that assumption. We need to win for several reasons. One is to continue on in the tournament, but after that, there are some unknowns there. That’s our approach,” Coach Fox says.
It’s unknown whether Wolfpack ace Carlos Rodon will take to the mound against the Tar Heels. Wolfpack Head Coach Elliott Avent left things up in the air as to who would be his starter, unwilling to give a firm decision on Monday.
But Coach Fox and the Tar Heels are under no illusions. They fully expect to see the future major-leaguer hurling his fastballs at them at some point Tuesday. Coach Fox just isn’t sure when.
Coach Fox confirmed Monday that reliable reliever Reilly Hovis would be making a rare start in place of usual midweek performer Taylore Cherry.
Hovis says Coach Fox texted him Monday morning to let him know to be prepared to start in the critical elimination game. Hovis says there are different approaches to starting versus closing, but he’s confident in his versatility.
“Normally, when you’re coming in to close, you’re coming in at a big situation. At the start of the game, the game is right there in the balance. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. It’s a different mindset, but I’ve done both. I feel comfortable,” Hovis says.
Coach Fox says a number of arms will be ready to roll later in the game if need be, including Carolina sophomore standout Trent Thornton, a normal Friday starter.
Senior slugger Parks Jordan is trying to impart some of his experience on the freshmen heading into the postseason. But he says it’s important not to get too amped up in the pressurized moments of tournament action.
“You have to have the right mindset for these types of games. You can’t put too much pressure on yourself. There’s a fine line between telling yourself ‘we need to win this game’ or ‘we have to win this game’. We should go into every game expecting to win. You should go into every game with a mindset just to play the way we’ve talked, the way we’ve been playing, and things will work out for themselves,” Jordan says.
Everybody remembers the 18-inning classic in the ACC Tournament a year ago in Durham. The marathon was eventually won by Carolina en route to the championship. UNC is 157-128-1 all-time against N.C. State, including a 26-22 edge under Coach Fox.
The winner of Tuesday’s throwdown, broadcast right here on WCHL, will advance to take on Florida State Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in pool play.