UNC baseball is preparing to open NCAA Tournament play Friday by once again hosting a regional.
There will be a lot of familiar faces traveling to Chapel Hill among the opponents – second-seeded Tennessee, third-seeded Liberty and fourth-seeded UNC – Wilmington. The Tar Heels played UNCW and Liberty twice each this season, going a combined 3-1.
Will that experience help or hurt Carolina this weekend?
“I don’t know that it does either one at this point based on what’s at stake,” head coach Mike Fox told reporters Thursday. “They’re just as familiar with us as we are with them.”
When it comes to the Tennessee Volunteers, one Tar Heel will have a particular knowledge of what to expect.
Dylan Harris plays center field for Carolina after transferring from Walters State Community College in east Tennessee. Harris is also from Knoxville and played high school baseball and on travel leagues with several current Tennessee players.
“It’s good playing against some buddies back home, kids I played against in high school and kids I played with for a long time,” Harris said. “It made me laugh when they showed up in our bracket, for sure.
“A lot of smack talking got sent across the phones,” Harris said with a chuckle.
Harris and Tar Heel first baseman Michael Busch agreed with their head coach that going up against opponents who the team has already played this year will not have much impact on the regional, calling this a “new season.”
Carolina ended the regular season on a disappointing note, losing the season’s final series to North Carolina State.
But the Tar Heels quickly rebounded and rolled through the ACC Tournament without losing and came away with the conference championship, dominating highly ranked Georgia Tech in the final.
“Put last week behind you and know what’s coming,” Fox said Thursday as his message to the team. “It really is a new season.”
Part of the Tar Heel success in the ACC Tournament was provided by the bat of Busch, who hit three home runs over the four games played and was awarded the tournament Most Valuable Player award.
“Got to reset again, like I did after I struggled for a couple of weeks,” Busch told reporters Thursday.
This will be the third time Busch has played in a regional during his time in Chapel Hill, and it could be his last. The junior is projected as a possible first-round pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball Draft. But Busch said his focus is on UNC and this group of teammates.
“Just enjoying it,” Busch said of his priorities. “I’ve had some of the best friends that I’ll have on this team. And whether this is my last year or not, I’m always going to cherish that moment, whether the next year comes. Because these years fly by.”
When Carolina plays UNCW on Friday – UNC won both matchups during the regular season – the Tar Heels will be sending Tyler Baum to the mound.
Fox wouldn’t give any details beyond that.
“We’re actually just going to TBD it for Saturday,” the head coach said. “We have an idea of who we’ll start, if Friday goes to plan. But right now, we feel like we need everybody available for Friday.
“But we certainly have a plan; we just are not going to announce it.”
Baum was launched into the Friday night role during conference play, when the top pitcher is typically handed the ball in college baseball, after preseason All-American Luca Dalatri underwent surgery that sidelined him for the rest of the year.
But Dalatri has been an active member of the team, even if he can’t take the mound.
“He’s an unbelievable kid,” Fox said of Dalatri, adding that he made the Dean’s List this semester and is “always on time, always where he’s supposed to be.
“And he came to me right when he knew he was going to have surgery and he said, ‘Please don’t send me home. I want to be here until the very end.’”
UNC will face the Seahawks in the first game on Friday with first pitch set for 2 p.m., even though most regional hosts have historically opted to play the later game.
Fox made the decision to play the early game last year as well.
“I’d wanted to do it before last year and either talked myself out of it or have somebody else talk me out of it,” he said. “And I understand the heat and the fans and all that, but I just think for us, if we’re fortunate to win, it does give you more rest.”
The loser of Friday’s second game, which is scheduled to have a first pitch at 7 p.m., will have to play an elimination game at 11 a.m. Saturday.
“Some of it is just a matter of not wanting to wait,” Fox said. “Because your kids are always antsy and anxious to play. And sometimes sitting around all day can not be a good thing.”
If the Tar Heels advance from the regional, there is potential for another familiar foe ahead. UNC’s regional is matched up with the Atlanta region, hosted by Georgia Tech, the same Yellow Jackets who Carolina defeated in the ACC Championship.
You can hear live coverage of all UNC’s NCAA Tournament games around Chapel Hill on 97.9 FM/1360 AM or streaming here.