As head coach Mike Fox threw batting practice for roughly 20 Boys Town students, the Tar Heels circled the infield and offered words of encouragement to the batters while directing jeers at the pitcher. One teenager refused to swing at a pitch, drawing a chorus of “good eye” comments from the UNC players.
When asked afterward if he needed to ice his right arm, Fox replied, “That’s a piece of cake right there. That’s about the only thing that I’m in shape to do is throw batting practice. Don’t ask me to do anything else.”
Junior catcher Jacob Stallings walking around with a camcorder during the team’s interaction with the at-risk youth drove home the fact that Sunday’s practice could be UNC's final one of the 2011 season, but the jovial nature surrounding the session made it clear that the Tar Heels aren’t ready to go home quite yet.
Junior shortstop Levi Michael pointed to North Carolina’s senior leadership in explaining the cool, calm and collected attitude that his teammates have adopted and lived by for the bulk of the season.
“The upperclassmen do a great job,” Michael said. “Obviously, they’ve all been here in ’09 and played, so they know what to expect. Their leadership has really been a lot of help for us. I think being able to come out here today and move around a little bit has brushed off yesterday’s game and I think we’re going to be locked in for the next one.”
After a 7-3 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday, North Carolina finds itself in the losers’ bracket with a four-game winning streak required to advance to the championship series set to begin next Monday.
As difficult as that task sounds, two of the past five national champions have accomplished that feat. Oregon State Oregon State lost its 2006 opener to Miami, 11-1, before winning four straight and six of its next seven, while South Carolina lost its opener to Oklahoma, 4-3, last season before winning six straight games to win the title.
“It’s not impossible,” Fox said. “It’s hard to do, but it can be done. You can’t focus on the daunting task of winning four, you just have to focus on one game. I think every team that is in this situation is going to do what it can to keep their season alive and not want it to end. We’ve all been doing the same thing. We’ve all been going at it since January. They’ve got some history behind them in being able to do that. I think you’ve got to still try to manage the same and let your kids relax and play.”
Monday will represent North Carolina’s first elimination game of the postseason after sweeping its regional and super regional brackets. Texas, on the other hand, is 5-0 in elimination games this postseason. The Longhorns dropped an 8-4 decision to Florida on Saturday night.
“We all know we played a below-average game, and they capitalized on it,” Texas head coach Augie Garrido said after the loss. “But that doesn't mean we have to lose our spirit or our confidence in each other and it doesn't have to mean we give up. We've been here before. We know we can win. This championship's been won out of the loser's bracket before. So we know it can be done. So we have that hope and that to look forward to. We have an opportunity. So we're in it. And we'll have to fight our way back.”
In staying with North Carolina’s loose approach in Omaha, the Tar Heels will trot freshman Kent Emanuel onto the mound on Monday against the Big 12’s 2010 Pitcher of the Year in Cole Green (8-3, 3.03 ERA, 5.42 SO-to-BB ratio), a senior right hander with two CWS starts under his belt from the 2009 campaign.
Emanuel (8-1, 2.55 ERA) hasn’t pitched like a rookie this postseason, however, in giving up just one earned run on 12 hits with 10 strikeouts and two walks in 14.0 innings in NCAA Tournament action.
The Woodstock, Ga. native has proven that he strives in pressure situations.
“I think it helps me, to be honest with you,” Emanuel said. “When the stakes are raised, I think it helps to bring out more of my competitiveness, so I’m going to try to feed off the pressure and all of the fans and try to bring my best stuff.”
The Tar Heels left practice shortly after noon with plans to spend Father’s Day with family members that made the trip to Omaha. And while North Carolina’s season could end as early as Monday afternoon, the mentality resonating at Boys Town on Sunday suggested that UNC might stick around a little while longer.