Eighteen hours later, the North Carolina head coach joined his players in that dogpile following his team’s 5-4 victory over South Carolina. In doing so, UNC advanced to its sixth College World Series in eight years.
“That’s the first one I’ve jumped in in 15 years here,” Fox told reporters during his postgame press conference. “It might be my last one, but it was fun.”
Fox routinely sends out mass emails to his players informing them of pregame meal times, changes in schedules and other news of note. Monday’s email went into specific detail, even down to the point of making sure Taylore Cherry, UNC’s 6-foot-8, 270-pound freshman pitcher, was at the bottom.
“I played for Coach and have been around him a long time, and [that email] was one of his best,” UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said.
Tuesday’s win wasn’t pretty, but not many of North Carolina’s victories have been of late. Those challenges only added to the excitement following UNC’s 57th win of the season, matching the single-season record set in ‘07.
A pair of rain delays pushed back the third and deciding game of the Chapel Hill Super Regional some 47 hours from its originally scheduled start. The weather, however, couldn’t prevent the Tar Heels from holding off a program that had reached the CWS championship series three years in a row, winning titles in ’10 and ’11.
In a game that included five errors, including a pair of baffling mistakes that scored three runs, the Tar Heels rallied from a 4-2 deficit with a crooked number in the sixth inning to retake the lead and complete the game’s scoring.
Brian Holberton’s two-run home run over the right field wall in the second gave UNC a 2-1 lead that was one of the few pure moments on Tuesday.
A treacherous fifth inning flipped the score back in South Carolina’s favor. Trent Thornton, who had relieved starter Benton Moss after 2.1 innings, walked the Gamecocks’ 8-hole hitter, Kyle Martin, to open the inning. Tanner English laid down a bunt and reached base after Cody Stubbs dropped a low throw by Thornton.
After Graham Saiko moved the runners with a sac bunt, it appeared as though UNC’s freshman pitcher would escape the jam by striking out Chase Vergason and forcing a fly ball by Joey Pankake. As senior centerfielder Chaz Frank slid over for the routine catch in right-center field, the ball popped out of his glove, allowing both base runners to score.
South Carolina tacked on a run in the sixth to increase its lead to 4-2 before Colin Moran lived up to his All-America status with a RBI triple in the bottom half of the inning to set the rally in motion.
“I really didn’t want that play by Chaz to decide the game, knowing that it was the last home game for him and all of the seniors,” Moran said. “The last thing I wanted was something like that to be the last memory.
“I thought [Martin] might catch it, and that would have been my third double play, so I was just happy it went by him.”
While a UNC blunder had gifted the Gamecocks a pair of runs in the fifth, the debt was repaid in the sixth. Skye Bolt was hit by a pitch in the next at-bat and then Stubbs flew out to shallow centerfield. Fox pressured South Carolina’s fragile defense (nine errors in three games) by sending Bolt to second after tagging up.
The plan worked as Martin was errant in his attempt to throw Bolt out at second base off the cutoff, allowing Moran to tie the game. Four batters later, with the bases loaded, South Carolina closer Tyler Webb walked in the winning run after jumping out in front of Parks Jordan with an 0-2 count.
South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook, who was in UNC’s dugout the last time the Tar Heels reached the championship series in ‘07, spent his post press conference talking about uncharacteristic miscues by his team.
“I felt like the game was there for us to win and we didn’t make some plays we normally make and do some things we normally do,” Holbrook said. “That’s baseball. Sometimes things don’t necessarily go your way but you’ve also got to try to make your own breaks and plays. We didn’t make the plays there in the sixth when it counted.”
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, made the plays they needed to stay alive in what has been a taxing NCAA Tournament thus far. Given that consistent ability, Fox may be up for one more dogpile in two weeks time.
North Carolina will open CWS play against ACC rival N.C. State at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday.