North Carolina Clinches College World Series Berth
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—As his players collapsed into a powder-blue pile near the pitcher’s mound, North Carolina head coach Mike Fox stood frozen in front of the third-base dugout, his eyes watering and the corners of his lips pointed skyward.
He waited five long years to watch this again.
Fox put his hands on his hips, then on his head, then down again—as if unsure how to process the moment. He swiveled toward the crowd, the liveliest crowd Boshamer Stadium has seen in some time, and threw his hands up, again and again, a wave of adulation crashing down with each gyration. Those hands then wrapped around his wife—and stayed there. A warm, cathartic embrace.
Over Fox’s shoulders, the Saturday scoreboard read: UNC 7, Stetson 5. The last win needed to return to Omaha.
When he finally had to take the post-game dais and was forced to somehow crystalize his emotions, Fox exhaled and paused. He joked he was going to try not to cry—but that wasn’t going to be easy.
“I’m unbelievably happy for these kids,” he said, eyes brimming. “They’re gonna get to experience something that’s going to be a lifetime memory for them. Our coaching staff, trainers, equipment manager, they’ve all been there, but none of these kids have. They have no idea what they’re about to experience.”
Fox has experienced the magic of Omaha more than most. This will be his seventh trip since 2006. From 2006-09, Fox’s teams went four years in a row. For a man and a program used to that level of success, the five-year gap between 2013’s Omaha team and this year’s has been an agonizing one.
In 2015 and 2016, the Tar Heels couldn’t escape the bubble, watching those seasons end on Selection Monday. Last season, the Tar Heels earned the No. 2 overall seed and were a trendy championship pick, only to watch Cinderella No. 4-seed Davidson celebrate on their own field.
Somewhere along the way, Fox and his Tar Heels decided that this team would be different. The Tar Heels have reinvigorated the program in a number of ways, most notably with the team’s adoption of a modern analytical approach.
But where UNC has seen the most change—and what sets this team apart from the teams of the last five years—is in the locker room. In the culture. In the players themselves.
“This is a special group,” Fox said, his voice cracking. “This is one of the more special teams I’ve been able to coach here. Just something about them.
“And you’ve gotta be a little good and a little lucky to get to this point.”
Much like the last Tar Heel team that went to Omaha—the 2013 team that was No. 1 in the Baseball America poll most of the season, earned the No. 1 national seed in the tournament and won a program-best 59 games—these Tar Heels have a knack for creating their own luck. They feed off each other and show both a formidable hunger and a cool confidence at the plate.
Look no further then the game’s very first pitch today, as junior third baseman Kyle Datres cranked a first-pitch fastball into left field for a single off of Stetson righthander Jack Perkins, who entered the game 11-2, 2.34. The wheels kept turning: an RBI double from Cody Roberts, another RBI double from Brandon Riley, a one-run single from Zack Gahagan, an RBI double from Ashton McGee.
The Tar Heels put up four runs before ace righthander Gianluca Dalatri could even touch the baseball, scoring at the kind of breakneck pace the UNC basketball team is known for.
This isn’t new. UNC has been swinging at a high level for the last few weeks—a big reason why the Tar Heels finished the season on such a strong note. Datres and first baseman Michael Busch generally lead the hit parade, but of late, the Tar Heels have been getting just as much production from bottom-of-the-order hitters like Gahagan, McGee and Brandon Martorano.
“I think we have a different superstar each game, and that’s how we’ve gotten to this point because it hasn’t been one guy,” Datres said. “It’s been one through nine. It doesn’t really matter who’s coming up to the plate in a big situation, I feel like, one through nine, that guy can get it done for us, and I think that’s what makes us dangerous because you can’t really lock in on one guy in our lineup.
“We’re coming together at the right time right now. And that’s what you need from a ball club. Baseball’s a lot about momentum, and we’ve come together and put a lot of good swings off of balls here lately.”
That momentum is visible. This team exudes an unquantifiable swagger, much like the team led by Kent Emanuel and Colin Moran did five years ago. Stetson made life incredibly difficult for UNC in both games of the super regional, but every time the Hatters seemed to steal some of that mojo, the Tar Heels showed very little panic and stayed within themselves.
One of the key plays of Saturday’s game came in the bottom of the third, when the Hatters had knocked two runs in, cut the score to 6-3 and were threatening with two more runners on base. Shortstop Jorge Arenas hit a sharp grounder right up the middle; it looked like a clear two-run single off the bat. But Gahagan, the second baseman, was positioned perfectly behind the bag, and he made an athletic stab and fired to first to end the inning. His positioning was a result of the analytical, shift-heavy approach the Tar Heels adopted, but the execution was all Gahagan.
With two outs in the ninth inning, for the second straight day, the Hatters had their best hitter up in Brooks Wilson with men on base and the chance to tie the game. And for the second straight day, Wilson put a great swing on the ball, driving it deep to dead center field. But, again, no panic. Riley closed his glove around it, and the Tar Heels sprinted toward the middle of the diamond.
Despite the suffocating humidity, there was little sweat in the UNC dugout. Unlike some of the groups in past years, this team never expects to lose.
“I feel awesome about this group,” Gahagan said. “We’re very close, and everybody seems to pick each other up, and it starts in the fall and a lot of hard work, and it’s a lot of character, too. The guys coach brings in, they’re all good kids, and we mesh well together.
“And my first two years, we didn’t have that. And that’s what we wanted to change. We wanted to change the culture. And we were able to do that.”
Navy Coach Paul Kostacopoulos Joins The Baseball America College Podcast
Navy coach Paul Kostacopoulos joins us to talk about the Army-Navy rivalry and the Midshipmen's 2020 outlook.
Fox echoed those sentiments.
“Is there anything different? I’ve got a whole group of different in there,” he said. "And I’m just tickled to death for them. I’m so happy for them, and they’ve given us all we asked of them since August.
"Baseball is a long journey, and we want to make it longer. And this team is really easy to coach. They love to practice, love to be down here. They’ve made it special. This is what makes coaching special.”
One of the ringleaders of that culture change is Datres, who is a high-spunk player and a player who brings that same energy to the clubhouse. During the post-game press conference, Datres fired jokes at every opportunity. When asked if the team had thought about what happened in the postseason last year, Datres just smiled and asked sarcastically,“What happened last year?” Roberts followed that up with an “atta boy” from three seats down.
That kind of banter continued as the guttural screams from their teammates in the locker room across the hall grew louder and louder. Eventually, Datres delivered an ultimatum.
“If you guys have any more questions,” he said, “you can make it fast.”
These Tar Heels aren't messing around. Not this year.