The Tar Heels’ run to the land of Warren Buffett and steaks wasn’t supposed to this dramatic. In bulldozing its way to a 39-2 start, North Carolina had outscored its opposition by 260 runs, good for a 6.3-run average margin of victory.
With a national seed all but secured in late April, UNC appeared on its way to returning to its standard postseason form that had paved the path for five CWS berths since ’06, last season’s blemish notwithstanding.
From ’06-11, UNC had posted a 23-1 home record in regional and super regional play, outscoring its opponents 230-88, good for a nearly six-run scoring differential. The Tar Heels won five of those games by 10 runs or more and 14 by five runs or more.
UNC had effectively obliterated its competition, making the increasing number of trips to Omaha seem, well, easy.
Reality struck in 2012, however, and the Tar Heels have since fought like never before to reach the College World Series for a sixth time in eight years.
St. John’s shocked the college baseball landscape by knocking UNC out of the tournament last season as a No. 3 regional seed. Florida Atlantic attempted to replicate that performance with a ninth-inning grand slam and a 12th-inning three –run dinger 11 days ago, but the Tar Heels responded to escape the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend.
“You go from thinking as a coach that we’re not going – you give up a grand slam and you give up a three-run homerun – and then you get that new life,” UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said.
Against South Carolina in Super Regional play, none of UNC’s starting pitcher got out of the third inning, but yet, once again, the Tar Heels found a way to persevere.
Since that remarkable 24-game streak at home in NCAA Tournament play, UNC has posted a 7-4 record over the past two seasons, complete with equal scoring between the home team and its opposition – 60-60.
“This one’s a lot different,” Kent Emanuel told reporters earlier this week. “Freshman year, when we won the second game of the supers, all of the freshmen were talking to each other and it seemed a little too easy. It seemed like it happened real quick. That’s definitely not the case this year.”
It’s not supposed to be easy. Only three national seeds played their way to Omaha this June. That’s been a common occurrence over the years – only three played in the CWS in 2010 and four made the trip in 2012.
“It makes it more special just because it was so hard,” Forbes said. “It wasn’t so easy. And even the guys that haven’t been to Omaha, they know they’ve come back, we’ve been in games where we’ve had to scrap…
“To do what we did against Florida Atlantic and then fight through it [against South Carolina] without our starting pitching going deep in the game, it’s obviously special. Going to Omaha anytime is extremely special because it’s so hard to get there, but this is a special group.”
For UNC head coach Mike Fox, the path has value but the destination is what matters most.
“It doesn’t really matter how you get there,” Fox said. “Baseball is a tough game. You never know how it’s going to go. At the end of the day, we’re going so that’s the most important thing.”
The Tar Heels will open the College World Series against N.C. State on Sunday (3pm) with the hope of avoiding the need for more magic to advance to the championship series.
In the current CWS format, teams reaching the championship series are 18-2 in their opening games.