CHAPEL HILL, N.C.–Everything just feels a little different this year for North Carolina. The 2006 Tar Heels obliterated the Chapel Hill regional, outscoring their opponents 43-13 in three games en route to the College World Series. The 2007 Heels entered regionals with even higher expectations and a No. 3 national seed, but they needed a pair of ninth-inning, come-from-behind rallies to go 3-0 this time around. UNC trailed 5-4 heading into the ninth inning this afternoon against Western Carolina, but junior shortstop Josh Horton delivered a game-winning two-run single in the ninth to propel the Tar Heels to their second straight super-regional.
"There's no substitute for experience at this level, there's just no substitute," North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. "Kids that have been there before, they don't panic, they take deep breaths. It's extremely important, and you don't get that experience until you go through the wars sometimes, and the kids fail sometimes, and they have to learn that."
That's the biggest difference from 2006: last year's precocious bunch hadn't been through the wars. This group is as hardened and determined as it gets. It has the kind of doggedness and sense of purpose that you can only really get by seeing the national championship slip just out of your grasp the year before. When these Tar Heels fall behind, they stay calm, and they know they can bounce back. Horton's day typifies that mentality–he struck out with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning with UNC still trailing 5-4, but that didn't faze him in the least when he stepped up with runners on second and third and two outs in the ninth inning. Fox later said he would have bet the farm that Horton was going to come through in that situation.
"I looked down at Coach Fox, he was grinning at me, and that took some of the pressure off me," Horton said. "I think everybody kind of knows what to do at this point in the season–scratch and win. I don't know how many come-from-behind wins we've had all season, and we've had two the last two games."
If anything, this group might be too focused on the task at hand, which is why Fox broke out the pearly whites in the most intense moment of the game.
"I thought we showed a lot of toughness and some determination and grit today," Fox said. "I think we had some pressure on us, actually, in this regional. I'm not quite sure why, maybe people expected us to win because of last year. We'll try to learn from that next weekend, and maybe try to play just a little looser and a little happier.
"I don't take these for granted. I was trying to get the players to get excited there at the end, because hadn't been that many regionals won in this program in over a hundred years of baseball."
Now, for the first time, North Carolina will host a super-regional. And the Tar Heels will be favored whether they face South Carolina or Charlotte. It comes down to firepower, and it comes down to experience. Where last year's young team couldn't quite execute the little things at the end against Oregon State, this year's veteran club does all the small things right when it matters. Horton's game-winner was set up by Tim Federowicz' fly ball to right-center field the batter before, when Mike Cavasinni tagged and went to third base, and Dustin Ackley alertly tagged from first after he saw the throw was headed to third. Ackley is just a freshman, but he's a heady player, and the poise of this team filters down from the coaches and the more experienced players.
"We talk about the little things, and the baserunning there in the ninth inning really won the game for us," Fox said. "We work on those little things, and that helped us today. I'll make sure I point that out to our team every time I can. The little things help us win."