Countdown to First Pitch: Mike Fox
With Friday’s UNC baseball season opener against Seton Hall just days away, head coach Mike Fox closes out our Countdown to First Pitch preview series with his thoughts on the young, but talented Tar Heel team that will take the field this year.
For a man that has made six trips to the College World Series since 2006, watching at home last season was definitely out of the ordinary for Coach Fox. After making a run to Omaha and winning 59 games during a 2013 season that was the most successful in the program’s history, the Tar Heels struggled to a 35-27 record in 2014 and fell to Long Beach State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
However, Coach says that experience can only help the team moving forward.
“You gotta take the good with the bad, the wins with the losses, and vice-versa,” Coach Fox says, “You hope what we went through last year, the stretches that we didn’t play as well, you hope you learn from it. Experience is your best teacher.”
Coach Fox hopes last year was a learning experience. (Getty Images)
Much has been made in the pre-season about the talented freshman class on the team, which originally included eight players ranked among the nation’s top 200 high school prospects a year ago (before some were drafted into the pros), but Coach Fox is not sure what kind of contributions to expect from them yet.
“Until another team is over there with a different jersey, and the scoreboard’s on, and the fans are in here, you really, truly don’t know (what to expect). Especially with your freshman. They can show you some good things out here (in practice), not just how they perform, but how they handle failure and that sort of thing. Some of it is honestly just trial by fire,” Coach Fox says.
Returning weekend starters Trent Thornton, Benton Moss, and Zac Gallen certainly give the Tar Heels a loaded pitching staff this season.
Some feel the burden in 2015 should be placed on the big bats in the lineup to give their pitchers a little more run support after struggling to produce much offense last season.
Coach Fox sees it a bit differently, saying that “if you go back and look at last year, we did not pitch well in the league. People on the outside said ‘you didn’t score enough runs’, but if you look at the ACC stats in those 30 games that count the most, we were right up there at the top of the league.”
The biggest worry for his team is the possibility that the infield may be comprised of four fresh faces after losing players to graduation and junior Landon Lassiter’s transition from third base to the outfield in the offseason.
Mike Fox has established a winning tradition at UNC. (Courtesy of GoHeels.com)
“I think that is the biggest question mark of our team is our infield defense because we probably are gonna have four different guys out there at third, short, second, and first. Or at least three,” Coach Fox says. “And we have to pick the ball up in the infield and make plays.”
If the infielders do end up making some mistakes that put the Heels into high pressure situations, the bullpen will be called on to save the day. Junior Reilly Hovis is back after earning a spot on the preseason third team All-American roster, along with the triumphant return of Chris McCue, who missed most of last year with a blood clot in his shoulder. These veterans will team up with freshman flame-throwers Hunter Williams, Hansen Butler, and J.B. Bukauskas to help get UNC out of those aforementioned tough scenarios.
Pre-season All-American reliever Reilly Hovis will get the Heels out of tough jams. (Daily Tar Heel)
“There is one critical time where you better not let the other team open the door. It’s kind of like runs in basketball, you better calm down, and you better stop it,” Coach Fox says. “That could be the fourth inning with the bases loaded and we need a strike out, we may go to Reilly Hovis or Chris McCue right then. The good news is, we have those guys, and the better news is if we don’t use one of them, we’ve got another one.”
Now that the offseason has come to a close, the Tar Heels are eager to take the field and get this year underway. Coach Fox can feel the anticipation growing.
“You see the excitement build from the fall, winter, and the preseason. We’re one of those sports that practices such a long time before opening day, so as we get closer the excitement builds. The kids are excited,” Coach Fox says.
The countdown is finally over. First pitch is here, and for the next three months this group will be looking to revert back to tradition and give Mike Fox a seventh trip to Omaha in his quest for a coveted national title that has so far, remained elusive.
It all starts this Friday at 2 p.m. as UNC takes on the Seton Hall Pirates within the friendly confines of Boshamer Stadium.
Countdown to First Pitch: Skye Bolt
UNC junior outfielder Skye Bolt has all the tools to be a top draft pick, making use of his time on UNC’s campus to leave Major League scouts in awe. This edition of our Countdown to First Pitch preview takes a look inside the mind of the Tar Heels’ most spectacular everyday player.
Anytime the Tar Heel baseball team has needed a strike of lightning over the past two seasons, Skye Bolt has usually delivered. A starter since his freshman year, Skye has proven himself to be one of the more dangerous bats in the Carolina lineup, hitting for both power and average.
With 10 home runs in his career though, Skye says that hitting the long ball definitely brings out a special kind of feeling.
Skye rounding first, listening to the crowd. (UNC Athletics)
“I’ve never been a power guy, per se, that has lived and died on the long ball, so if I’m bustin’ butt down to first base, and I pick my head up and the first thing I hear is a clap or something like that, it’s kind of a ‘relax’ type of moment. There’s nothing like seeing the ball go over the wall.”
Drafted out of high school in the 26th round by the Washington Nationals, Bolt opted to go the college route instead. Heading into 2015, Skye has improved his game greatly, seen by many pro scouts as a potential first rounder after the season.
Capable of playing all three outfield positions, Bolt is an extremely versatile player. However, injuries limited his production last season, after a breakout freshman year in 2013, where he hit .321 with six homers and 51 RBI during UNC’s run to the College World Series in Omaha.
His main focus this year is on the Tar Heels, but he does have long-term sights set on a pro career. With this in mind, he says he’d like to see the NCAA transition to the use of wood bats, to better prepare young hitters for the big leagues.
Skye Bolt can do it all, at the plate, and in the outfield. (UNC Athletics)
“There’s an expense side of it that’s kind of keeping the NCAA off of the idea. For showmanship, and for a fan base, the metal bats provide more home runs, obviously. But swinging a wood bat is something that separates the guys that can really swing it, and the guys that can’t.”
One of the most legendary wooden bat swingers of all time was Babe Ruth. Ruth was famous for not only his hitting ability, but also his diet of hot dogs and beer.
Skye Bolt’s eating habits can easily be considered borderline “Ruthian.”
“I cram down anything. I know it’s gonna catch up with me later in life,” Bolt says, “I do concentrate on protein and calories. Protein’s great. And I think a staple of all of our athletes’, and especially us baseball players’ (diets), is protein bars, something with some grain and some nuts in it.”
For many top athletes, competition runs in their blood. That seems to hold true for Skye as he loves playing sports and competing in anything, on or off the diamond.
Every sport except for one that is.
“Not a basketball fan, never liked basketball, never was very good at it. I didn’t understand the concept of dribbling,” Skye says, “I like playing around with the guys, football, throwing it around.”
The Georgia boy also has a passion for the outdoors, saying that he is an avid hunter.
“Whenever I get free time, when it’s not 20 degrees out, and we’re out of season, I love to hunt, love to hunt and fish. That’s something I do back home in Georgia whenever I get the opportunity to,” Bolt says, “In the past two years, me and some teammates have looked into some local land, and tried to get out there as much as possible.”
Bolt’s bat will be a big key to UNC’s success this season. (WRAL)
There is plenty of optimism in the air around Boshamer Stadium these days, with seemingly anyone you talk to around the clubhouse singing the praises of this team’s “chemistry.”
Everybody seems to be friendly with one another, something Bolt says definitely has an impact on the field.
He credits those relationships with helping in situations such as middle infielders knowing where one another is going to be on a double play, a pitcher and catcher with a great feel for each others’ tendencies, or outfielders knowing who will make a play on a fly ball.
Chemistry, along with the team’s talent, has given Skye plenty of reasons to harbor high expectations for this season.
“I think we’re just as talented, if not more talented than we were in ’13. We’re definitely and certainly younger, but we will make a run. We will make a run. If we get to Omaha, that’s all that we care about,” Bolt says.
“The rest will take care of itself.”
Coach Mike Fox: Past, Present, Future
As fall ball and the first days of school start up again for the Diamond Heels, Rogers takes a look at the State of the Program with Head Coach Mike Fox.
In one of his final press conferences of the 2013 season, UNC Baseball Coach Mike Fox remarked that “the end of the year always hurts…it never gets any easier.” This wasn’t an earth-shattering quote. Anyone who has played or follows sports knows the feeling. What was interesting about Fox’s comments, however, is that they came after a win for his ball club. One might expect a different sound bite after a Super Regional that would send his team to — yet another — College World Series.
Perhaps Fox was sympathizing with the losing squad, the South Carolina Gamecocks — coached by Fox’s friend and former assistant, Chad Holbrook. There’s likely some truth to that. Having been there before, Fox was no doubt ultra-aware of the pain that comes with losing on that stage. But even Holbrook himself remarked in his postgame quotes that he already owned two national title rings and smirked, “I’m a big boy, I’ll be fine.”
Much more likely is that Coach Fox was simply offering a metaphorical glimpse of where he has taken his program — to a level where all the games at the end are big. And they can all hurt.
The roaring success of Carolina Baseball over the past decade (the winningest program over that span) can no doubt be a double-edged sword. Victory brings expectations. Success breeds demands. It’s a paradox in a way — especially for the fans. The more you win, the more it hurts when you lose. No one remembers the end of a mediocre season.
Of course, this is a dilemma any program would accept. “It’s better to have loved,” after all. But that doesn’t make it any easier. And it certainly doesn’t make it any easier on the head coach himself. Fox has produced a #1 ranked team in almost every season for seven years, and in a backwards fashion that success somehow brings as much scrutiny as it does praise. The head coach was questioned over his pitch count management last season even though he has been putting pitchers into the big leagues over the last decade seemingly at the rate Carolina Basketball sends point guards to the NBA.
Fox has even attained the status of what might be the most gratifying criticism there is for a head coach: having not won “the big one.” It’s almost flattering — the media’s way of saying you’ve become so successful that they’re going to start nitpicking everything about you just to find a story. It isn’t much different from when Tyler Hansbrough had become so unstoppable in college basketball that pundits started criticizing the prospects of his professional career that hadn’t even happened.
But if you know Coach Fox, you know this criticism means nothing to him. He’s just happy to be there — at that level. That’s all he talks about, “just be there, and we’ll have a chance.”
That kind of attitude takes discipline, which the coach has earned over a long career. He started at second base for the Tar Heels from 1976-1978 (helping his team to a College World Series) and played a year in indy pro baseball. While at UNC he even played on the jayvee basketball team.
In 1979, Fox came back to UNC as a graduate assistant, where he crossed paths with another future Tar Heel head coach, Roy Williams, who was an assistant to Dean Smith at the time. It might be from Williams where Fox learned to tune out criticism and simply coach his team.
“Mike and I have a great relationship — we both love Carolina and UNC athletics. I’ll always support and help his program.” – Roy Williams
There are a lot of similarities between the close friends: the same stubbornness, the same ferocious intensity in anything resembling a competition. Williams’ competitive fire is no secret, and there are enough stories floating around Woolen Gym of Mike Fox’s intensity in pickup basketball games to believe that at least a handful have some truth to them.
“A lot of my coaching comes from my playing days in basketball and baseball. Being undersized, I always had to be aggressive. I think a coach’s mentality always stems from his past.” – Fox
Specifically, both coaches’ programs are renowned for their relentlessly aggressive tendency to put points and runs on the scoreboard — and often lead the nation in those categories. It’s a major reason they’re both such great recruiters (Newsflash: athletes like scoring). Fox and Williams each have the same mindset in coaching: they’ll absorb a few turnovers (or throw-outs at home) if it means having a deadly offense. Fox writes notes to himself before every game based on his competition, but one is always the same: “Be aggressive.” He wants his kids pushing the envelope, and you can’t argue with the results.
“Kids want to be aggressive and run bases — we encourage that. They like to play that way, and we try to allow them some freedom in the batter’s box.” – Fox
Coach Williams’ philosophy isn’t much different, both while running his team and even when watching the Diamond Heels. “I love it when [Coach Fox’s] teams take the extra base, hit and run, and put pressure on the other team’s defense,” said Williams.
The aggressive nature of Fox’s game plan invades all aspects of his coaching. Like most successful coaches, he does everything with an underlying intensity and focus. This can be off-putting to the media and pundits at time, but this attitude endears a coach to his players. And of course that is what makes a great manager and brings players to a program.
When Fox gets a runner thrown out by (mistakenly) telling him to round third base, you could argue he made a poor decision. But what does this say to the player? “My coach believes in me. He thought I could make it.”
“I think our style really loosens kids up and allows them to play better. I never want errors or outs, but once you build that trust, giving them the green light frees them up to make plays.” – Fox
Chase Jones came into UNC’s program in 2006, just when Fox was starting to take over the ACC and make Omaha his yearly vacation spot. Having had a few years to reflect on Carolina Baseball’s success since then, Jones’ comments on the state of the program had more to do with Fox and his players than on any win-loss records:
“He’s so great off the field,” Jones says. “He builds you up after a loss, and has no problem chewing you out after a win, like all the great ones. He’s always telling us: Be aggressive. Fine, get thrown out, but always be aggressive. Go for that extra base. Go for home. ”
“Coach instills confidence in his players.” – Jones
When asked about Fox and UNC Baseball finally having an ending to a season that doesn’t “hurt,” Jones said what everyone who has played on that stage knows: “It’s basically a crapshoot at that level. You hope your pitching is there, you hope your bats are there. But the real key is just being there — eventually it will happen.”
And if you know Mike Fox, you know he understands. He says it nonstop, “We just want to be there.”
Of course, this is also an aspect of coaching Roy Williams knows a thing or two about:
“I remember Coach Smith saying in 1982, ten minutes after the national championship game was over, that he didn’t think he was a better coach than he had been two and half hours ago just because we had beaten Georgetown. I made the same statement in 2005 after we beat Illinois in St. Louis. Mike Fox is a fantastic coach… He is winning so many games and I want him to keep knocking on that door for a national championship… and one of these days, he’ll win one.” – Williams
As Jones says, “Omaha is no longer the vacation spot. It’s the standard.”
Photos courtesy InsideTheACC.com, and AP Wire
Diamond Tar Heels Take First Postseason Win, 6-3
CHAPEL HILL — Opening their postseason play at home, the #1 ranked and top overall seeded Tar Heels improved to 53-8 Friday night with a 6-3 win over the Golden Griffins of Canisius (42-16) in a game that was closer than the final score showed.
“It was a hard-fought win, we really had to grind — grind it out,” said UNC Coach Mike Fox after his Tar Heels advanced to the “winners” game at 6PM Saturday night against Towson.
But early on it didn’t look like Carolina was going to be challenged. Fox’s team started out hot like they have all year, leading 3-0 after only six at-bats. Outfielder Brian Holbert crushed a double down the right field line that led to his 54th and 55th RBI of the season to give UNC the quick lead.
The #1 ranked Tar Heels now own a +140 advantage in runs scored against their 2013 opponents in the first three innings.
But even though they were down four runs early, Canisius didn’t quit. “I definitely think we built confidence as the game went on,” said right fielder Ryan Coppinger.
Coppinger’s coach echoed his sentiments. “A pitch here, and at-bat there, a play there, a call there, and maybe we’re talking about a different ball game,” said head coach Mike McRae. “I just ran out of innings.”
With how McRae’s team performed against the nation’s most dominant squad in the Tar Heels, you can’t blame him for being confident. Canisius gave up early runs in the first two innings but then absolutely locked down UNC’s big-time bats — shutting Carolina out for five straight innings and retiring eight of nine batters at one point.
Facing a low scoring, 4-3, game after seven innings, the Heels needed some defense of their own. With the pressure on in the top of the eighth, Mike Fox went to his freshman phenom closer, Trent Thornton.
“I can’t remember the last time we had a freshman closer,” said Coach Fox. “He’s a special kid. He even made the dean’s list. He’s got that ‘it’ factor.”
Thornton struggled at first, and was soon facing bases loaded with only one out — with only a one run lead. But the talented right-hander with a season ERA of 1.29 would come through once again for the Heels. Thornton struck out two straight while looking — erupting with a show of emotion that really got the home crowd into the game.
“It’s fun to have pressure,” said Thornton.
Feeling the momentum switch back to the Tar Heels, superfan Tom Jensen (known by anyone who has stepped foot near Boshamer these last few years as the “Tarrr-chant guy”) knew it was time to get the crowd going.
When asked about what fan support can do for his alma mater, Jensen was all smiles. “To have a sold out crowd tonight really says something about how much the community is getting behind this team, and [the Tar Heels] deserve it. I think a lot of the great support has to do with the new stadium, and to their credit, the athletic department has really done a lot to reach out to the community. I think a lot of people just realize how special these guys are want to come out and support this team.”
Hear all of Jensen’s comments:
And with that crowd behind them, the Heels responded. Mike Zolk and Chaz Frank would both record RBIs to give their squad a comfortable 6-3 lead heading into the ninth, where Thornton would once again made quick work of the Canisius offense. The freshman struck out three straight to send the Heels into the “winners” game on Saturday.
Coach Fox on if Thornton’s success surprises him:
The win ensures that Carolina will make Sunday’s games at the very least in the double elimination format. Mike Fox’s #1 ball club will face Towson (30-28), who beat Florida Atlantic 7-2 in the early game at Boshamer Stadium on Friday afternoon.
Like Canisius, Towson will be no pushover. But as the #1 team in the country, everyone is going to give UNC their best shot — something Chaz Frank wasn’t afraid to admit in his post game comments:
“We’re the number one team and the number one seed. And we’re going to have a target on our back. We’re ready for that.”
Rain Delays UNC Baseball Match-Up Against Clemson
CHAPEL HILL – It was a short night for the No. 1 Diamond Heels Sunday against Clemson at Boshamer Stadium.
Rains rolled through just before 8 p.m. in the second game between the Tigers and the Heels. Play is scheduled to resume 2:45 p.m. on Monday.
The Tar Heels held a 2-0 lead over the Tigers with two outs in the top of the third inning.
UNC registered its two runs in the second inning. Matt Roberts set-up a safety squeeze bunt to score Brian Holberton. And two batters later, Landon Lassiter sent a double inside third base to left field, scoring Mike Zolk from second base.
Sophomore Benton Moss was having an excellent night on the mound, striking out six batters through 2.2 innings.
The Heels took the first match-up on Saturday, beating Clemson 10-3. With that win UNC improved to 24-1 overall, and 8-1 in the ACC.
The third game of the series is also slated for Monday night at 6 p.m.