Approaching the program’s first College World Series game since 2013, the UNC baseball team is playing as well as it has all season long. Head coach Mike Fox and company will now try to channel that momentum into the team’s first ever national championship.
In five games so far during the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels have yet to end up on the wrong end of the scoreboard—cruising through both the Chapel Hill Regional and Super Regional to earn their trip to Omaha.
Left as one of just eight teams remaining, however, UNC isn’t the only team that can say it’s playing its best baseball of the year.
Squads like Washington and Mississippi State punched their ticket to the College World Series despite not earning national seeds before the tournament. Defending national champion Florida struggled toward the end of the regular season but still managed to regroup when the spotlights turned on.
The point is that each of the teams in Omaha comes into the event riding a similar wave of momentum, which according to Fox, makes winning that much more of a task.
“Obviously you’re facing the best of the best and you’re facing the hottest teams—the most confident teams,” Fox said. “The margin of winning and losing is even smaller than it is in the regular season, so you can’t make mistakes. You have to play at a very high level. That in itself makes it difficult.”
Speaking with reporters earlier this week, Fox used the benefit of hindsight to take a look into his team’s mindset.
While it wasn’t something he sensed during the moment, the coach said he feels his players were itching to get done with the formalities that occur before the NCAA Tournament gets underway—pesky little things like the regular season and the ACC Tournament.
A late-season series loss to Duke and a shocking upset to Pitt that kept the Tar Heels out of the ACC Semifinals gave UNC fans plenty of reasons to worry about yet another NCAA letdown, but as fate would have it, this team had other ideas.
“It was almost like they were just ready, you know?” Fox said. “Let’s get the regular season and the ACC Tournament over. I just said that, but I don’t wanna say that.
“But it was almost like, ‘Let’s get this behind us,’” the coach added. “And then, ‘Let’s get to where we’re all ready to get started here.’ It just kind of seemed like that after the fact.”
If there’s one team who threatens to put an end to all of UNC’s positive momentum, it’s No. 3 Oregon State–who the Tar Heels will open play against on Saturday.
The Beavers have crushed all five of their opponents in the tournament, have lost just 10 games all season and haven’t dropped a three-game series since the beginning of April.
Throw in the history between the teams—Oregon State defeated UNC in the College World Series finals in both 2006 and 2007—and you have a matchup that has kept Fox and the Tar Heel coaching staff studying tape since it was first announced.
With that in mind, though, Fox reminded the media that most of his players weren’t even 10 years old the last time the two teams met in Omaha. The focus, now, is simply about taking care of the business in front of them—no matter who it may be.
“It’ll probably be more painful for me and the coaches to see the highlights that I’m sure they’re gonna show from ’06 and ’07, but again that’s past history,” Fox said. “You have to go through a gauntlet of teams that are really, really good to win the whole thing. So, we’re starting with a really, really good one. It is what it is.”
Photo via UNC Athletics