CHAPEL HILL-UNC and NC State baseball are making the final preparations for their first ever NCAA tournament meeting, set to take place on Sunday—and it just happens to be in the opening round of this year’s College World Series in Omaha.
Carolina is no stranger to the College World Series, with this year marking their tenth trip—but head Tar Heel Coach Mike Fox says this particular team is unique in the amount of close calls it’s had to take just to get this far.
“This team has battled some adversity the last couple of weeks,” he says. “It’s gotten down to the last out or the last swing of the bat to our season being over, and somehow we’ve survived and made do.”
In both the NCAA Regional and Super Regional, the Heels managed one-run victories in elimination games; in the Regional round, the took down Florida Atlantic 12-11 in 13 innings, and they came away with the 5-4 win against South Carolina in the Super Regional game that earned them the trip to Omaha.
N.C. State had an easier time, not losing a single game during NCAA tournament play. Still, their two final games against Rice in the Super Regional were both one-run calls. Their second game against the Owls, which earned them the spot in the College World Series, lasted for an NCAA Super Regional record 17 innings.
All season long, both the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack have played some of their most impressive baseball in recent memory; UNC sits at an overall record of 57-10, while NC State is currently at 49-14. Just this year alone, the Wolfpack and the Heels have had several tense matchups—during their one regular season series of the year, UNC took one game and N.C. State took the other. But, much to the dismay of both teams’ fans, no series winner was decided because the third game was rained out and not rescheduled.
Still, the two powerhouses would meet again in the ACC tournament semifinal round—where, after an all-tournament record of 18 innings and more than six hours, the Heels ultimately took the 2-1 win. UNC would then go on to claim the ACC crown.
Even with such a powerful recent history, Tar Heel freshman short stop Landon Lassiter says the team isn’t letting the in-state rivalry become a distraction.
“We’ll just treat them like another opponent, but it does mix in some emotions with N.C. State being our rival,” he says. “But we’re just going to do it pitch by pitch.”
UNC has several factors working in its favor; the Heels have been to the College World Series six times in the past eight years, with their last trip coming in 2011. N.C. State, on the other hand, hasn’t made the trip to Omaha since 1968. Even so, some of the odds are packed in the Wolfpack’s favor—N.C. State has only lost four games since March 31, while the Heels have fallen seven times.
Individual Tar Heel standouts going into the showdown include junior third baseman Colin Moran and senior first baseman Cody Stubbs who sit at first and third place respectively for RBI, with 88 and 76. Freshman pitcher Trent Thornton, meanwhile, has the seventh-lowest earned run average in the NCAA at 1.28. For the Wolfpack, Carlos Rodon, who allowed only one hit in ten innings during the two teams’ last game will take the mound on Sunday.
Junior Tar Heel pitcher Kent Emanuel, was recently named ACC pitcher of the year and selected by the Houston Astros as first pick in the MLB draft’s third round. He says his team’s recent extra-innings marathons have allowed them to get ready for a worst-case scenario in Omaha.
“I don’t think you ever want to go into extras,” he says. “You want to win it in nine. But, with that being said, if we do go into extras, we know our team is definitely prepared for that. Either way, I’m okay with it as long as we’ve got a chance to win.”
And Stubbs says the worst part of the process is already behind him.
“I think the hardest and most nerve-wracking part is just getting there,” he says. “Once you get there, you just go out and play and do the best you can. The hard part’s done, now you just enjoy it and have the chance to win a National Championship.”
Sunday’s first pitch is slated for 3 p.m. That game, along with all of the Tar Heels’ other College World Series games, will be broadcast live on WCHL and streaming online at chapelboro.com.