For Tar Heels, College World Series title dream dies hard
No North Carolina team — and only two ACC teams in history — had won more games than this year’s Tar Heels, which went the entire season without consecutive losses and finished 59-12.
UNC shook off the pressure and expectations of its first preseason No. 1 ranking by winning 39 of its first 41 games. When the competition got tougher, it persevered and claimed the ACC regular season and tournament championships.
The team showed toughness in battling through four elimination games in the NCAA Tournament, and gave fans two games for the ages — an 18-inning win over N.C. State in the ACC Tournament and a regional final win over Florida Atlantic in which it overcame a grand slam in the ninth and a 3-run homer in the 12th to win in 13.
Still, UNC is used to postseason success — it’s been to the College World Series six times in eight years. And when this year’s run came to an end Friday night against UCLA, the fact that the Tar Heels were one of the last four teams remaining didn’t cut through the disappointment that they couldn’t get that elusive first national championship.
Instead, either the Bruins or Mississippi State will claim their first-ever title.
“There’s only going to be one happy team at the end of the year,” pitching coach Scott Forbes said earlier in the week. “It doesn’t matter how you spin it. That’s just how sports are, and we’ve been out here enough times to realize that.”
UNC has won more total games (407) and NCAA Tournament games (49) than any program since the start of the 2006 season. Seemingly all that’s left is taking the final step.
After losing its College World Series opener to N.C. State ace Carlos Rodon, the Tar Heels beat No. 4 LSU and then avenged the loss to the Wolfpack, but couldn’t get past the Bruins.
The only consolation UNC could take Friday night was the way it ended. After failing to get a runner to third base through eight innings, the Tar Heels loaded the bases with no outs against national closer of the year Tyler Berg, who had tied a Division I record with 23 saves and had the nation’s lowest ERA (0.85).
“I mean, you saw it in the ninth inning,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “It’s something you just don’t coach. It’s within your team. We’re not going down. We’re going to keep fighting.”
Still, the Tar Heels could only push one run across, and they saw their four-game winning streak in NCAA Tournament elimination games come to an end.
The team entered the NCAA Tournament with the potential to be one of four teams in the past 25 years to be in the top five in the country scoring and ERA. Instead, both the offense and the pitching failed at times.
None of UNC’s three starters could get past the third inning in the super regionals against South Carolina. The Tar Heels got around that, but in the end it was an offense that scored one or fewer runs in three of its last six games that was their undoing.
For next season, UNC may have to replace two of its three weekend starters and four of its first five hitters. It will certainly lose seniors Cody Stubbs, who had a team-high .366 batting average, and leadoff hitter Chaz Frank.
It’s almost certain to lose ACC player of the year Colin Moran, who led the country with 91 RBIs and was picked sixth overall by Miami in the MLB Draft, and ACC pitcher of the year Kent Emanuel, who went 28-10 in his career and was a third-round selection by Houston.
Cleanup hitter Brian Holberton (ninth round) and lefthander Hobbs Johnson (14th round), who threw 8 1/3 shutout innings Thursday against N.C. State, could also turn pro.
Regardless, UNC is expected to regroup and make another title run next season. But it certainly seemed like one of its best opportunities slipped through this week in Omaha.
“The end of the year just — it always stinks,” Fox said. “But it’s just been a great pleasure for me personally and our coaches. What we did in the ninth inning is just indicative of our kids and how we played all year. Just fighting until the very end. Proud of all of them.”