Last year’s regional loss motivates Tar Heels

May. 30, 2013 @ 10:57 PM

North Carolina enters the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and a clear favorite to make the College World Series for the sixth time in eight years.

But the Tar Heels, who open today against No. 4 Canisius in the Chapel Hill Regional at Boshamer Stadium (6 p.m., ESPN3.com), aren’t taking anything for granted.

“People say we don’t have the toughest regional, but that doesn’t matter to me,” senior centerfielder Chaz Frank said. “I keep telling the team we have to respect every opponent like they’re N.C. State or Clemson or someone hard from our conference who’s coming in here and trying to beat us.”

Frank doesn’t have to search very far for an example. The Tar Heels were the No. 6 national seed last year before losing twice to St. John’s, who came in seeded third in the four-team regional. Before that UNC had been a perfect 15-0 when hosting a regional from 2006-11, providing a launching pad for those CWS appearances.

“We might have looked ahead too early,” Frank said. “We’re definitely not going to do that (now).”

Those stunning losses to St. John’s – the Tar Heels were the only one of the eight national seeds to lose in the first weekend – provided motivation for the past 12 months.

“It’s been that gnaw in the pit of your stomach, just a bad feeling that never really goes away.” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “You just remember that because it’s a sinking, bad feeling, and you can use that to motivate you or to work a little bit harder.”

Junior Brian Holberton used it as fuel in the summer, when he didn’t feel like lifting or running.

“Anytime basically you ever felt bad, or you got tired, you just think about that and you don’t want that to happen again,” Holberton said. “Hopefully it pushes you a little more and affects how you play six months later in June.”

The Tar Heels (52-8) haven’t felt much disappointment this season. The team started No. 1 in the Baseball America poll and stayed there until May 13. UNC sports the highest winning percentage in the country – including a nation’s-best 23 wins against NCAA Tournament teams – and won the ACC regular season and conference tournament.

The Tar Heels also rank in the top five in both scoring and earned run average and haven’t lost back-to-back games all season.

As a result, UNC earned the No. 1 overall seed for the first time since the current format was introduced in 1999. While that may have raised expectations, Holberton said the team now is used to having the target on its back.

“It definitely helped us earlier in the year that we did have a little pressure on us, that we were the No. 1 team in the country,” Holberton said. “And now that we got the No. 1 seed, it feels normal. There’s not extra pressure.”

Still, sophomore Benton Moss (8-1, 3.56) – who will start tonight’s opener – said that the team couldn’t rest on its regular season accomplishments.

“It’s a clean slate and you can’t play like your record means anything anymore,” Moss said. “We’re 0-0 and it starts from the beginning.”

Last year certainly proved that.

Three UNC players earned Louisville Slugger All-America honors Thursday.

Junior pitcher Kent Emanuel (10-3, 2.11), the ACC pitcher of the year, was named to the first team after leading the conference in wins and innings (110.2).

Junior third baseball Colin Moran, the ACC player of the year, earned second-team honors after leading the country in RBIs (84) and hitting .357.

Senior first baseman Cody Stubbs, who ACC Tournament MVP, claimed a spot on the third team. He leads the team with a .362 average and is third in the country with 72 RBIs.

Canisius (42-15) qualified for its first NCAA Tournament after winning a MAAC-record 42 games. The Golden Griffins are 25-9 in road games, the second-most road wins in the country, and are 16th in the country in scoring at 7.1 runs per game.

UNC will face righty Garrett Cortright (11-3, 2.24) who pitched a one-hitter against No. 2 seed Marist in the first round of the MAAC Tournament. It was the junior’s fifth complete game of the season.

UNC has only played Canisius once before – a 10-5 Tar Heels win in 1958.