CHAPEL HILL, N.C.–After the celebration ended, after North Carolina became the first team to clinch a spot in this year’s College World Series, Mike Fox admitted he had a feeling a few weeks ago this would happen. Something told him the Tar Heels would make their fifth trip to Omaha in the last six years.
Saturday night, North Carolina beat Stanford 7-5 to make Fox’s gut feeling a reality.
“I told them three or four weeks ago that I felt that deep down inside that we were going to go back,” Fox said. “And they did it.”
The Tar Heels have swept through the NCAA tournament so far, winning five straight, but little about their return to the College World Series has been easy.
Fox missed all three of the Tar Heels' games in regionals last week, caring for his ailing mother and then grieving her death last Saturday. Then, as North Carolina prepared for its super regional matchup with Stanford, associate head coach Scott Forbes’ father-in-law died.
Catcher Jacob Stallings marveled at his coaches’ resolve.
“I can’t even imagine going through that and still coming out here and still trying to give complete focus to your team,” he said. “It’s something that I will always remember, just (Fox) doing. It was a pretty special thing for him to do.”
The Tar Heels faced more tense moments Saturday afternoon. After taking a commanding 6-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning, they watched as the Cardinal stormed back with four runs. The inning’s biggest blow came when right fielder Austin Wilson laced a double off closer Michael Morin, clearing the bases.
Wilson said he got fooled by Morin’s slider, but was still able to muscle it into left field. Morin said he thought he had made a good pitch, but Wilson was able to get enough of the barrel on it to make him pay.
“He’s a big kid,” Morin said. “That’s a game-changer right there.”
But it wasn’t. Two batters later Morin induced a double play to end the inning, and then, with two outs in the top of the ninth, the rain came. Lightning in the area forced the game into delay, which ultimately lasted for three hours and 32 minutes.
When the rain finally cleared just before 10 p.m., North Carolina picked up a key insurance run. Stallings lined an RBI single just over the outstretched glove of a leaping Kenny Diekroeger. Stallings admitted he thought the Stanford shortstop was going to catch the ball, but when he didn’t it was clear the Tar Heels weren’t going to need a third game to clinch the series.
Morin returned to the mound in the bottom of the ninth, striking out the first two batters before Stephen Piscotty ended the game on a ground out. Morin threw his glove into the air and the Tar Heels dog-piled on the righthander.
Now North Carolina will prepare for its fifth trip to Omaha in the last six years, after missing the College World Series last year. For those that have been there before, like Stallings, the chance to go back is thrilling. But Fox said he was happiest for first baseman Jesse Wierzbicki, who will make his first trip to the College World Series.
“I love that kid,” Fox said. “He transferred, he’s a senior and he might be the happiest guy in that locker room. Because he’s going to get to go.”