OMAHA–While Oregon State was celebrating its second straight national title with the dogpile it had been saving all season long, North Carolina coach Mike Fox walked back through the dugout tunnel into the locker room. UNC junior outfielder Reid Fronk was already there.
“Reid didn’t want to watch the celebration, and neither did I–I’d seen that before,” Fox said. “It’s just difficult, so I went in the locker room. I told him I was going to miss him, he said, ‘I’ll miss you too.’ That’s the great thing about coaching that if you’re not in it, it’s hard to understand. But that’s the wonderful thing about coaching is the relationships. That’s the part that’s going to carry on.”
Fox choked up as he talked about how much he was going to miss players like Fronk, Josh Horton, Andrew Carignan and Robert Woodard, who will depart North Carolina for the professional ranks now that the season is over. That group of players, along with other juniors who are likely to return for their senior seasons like Chad Flack and Seth Williams, has meant an awful lot to the UNC program, not just because they led the Tar Heels to the College World Series finals in back to back years. Those players helped build a culture of winning in Chapel Hill that will endure long after they’re gone.
“I told them in the locker room just a minute ago, there’s a core of players on our team right now–and those two certainly at the head of them,” Fox said, gesturing to Horton and Carignan, “that put our program where it is right now. A core of freshmen that came into our program in 2005 that were not only talented by extremely driven, very, very unselfish, just team guys that really wanted to win. I think you’ve got to have a core of those team guys in your clubhouse, or you’re going to find it difficult to win a championship. I can’t think too deep right now or feel too deep about those guys or I probably won’t be able to finish, but they’re a special, special group.”
Horton is one of the leaders of that group, a second-round pick who will soon begin his career with the Athletics. He’ll end his collegiate career without a national championship, but he understands that does not detract from everything North Carolina has accomplished, both on the field and off.
“I wouldn’t trade the national championship for the year that I’ve had with these guys or the relationships we’ve built, and just the amount of fun that we’ve had playing the game,” Horton said. “I’m just appreciative that I’ve had two years like that back to back, I don’t think many people get to say that, even though we came up short both times.”
And now that it’s over, Fox can tell his players just what they have meant to North Carolina and to him.
“You’re trying to hold it together–what a run. A lot of us have been together for three years,” Fox said. “I’ve seen some of these guys more than I’ve seen my own children. You become attached to them. You feel for them, and I can’t show while they’re playing for me just how deeply I care about them, because they’ll think I’m a wimp, so I have to appear to be tough, but I’m really not. I get to tell them when their careers are over just how much I care for them.”
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