Before the season began, head coach Mike Fox highlighted the competition for the Friday night job between Thornton and Benton Moss.
Moss, the more experienced of the two, was named the Friday starter in the opener against the College of Charleston, but Thornton made his case on the mound that weekend. The Charlotte, N.C. standout struck out a career-high 10 batters through six innings of work and showed complete control throughout the contest.
"Early in the year, Coach [Scott] Forbes said we basically had two Friday night starters on our team," Thornton said. "Benton's an incredible pitcher and I use that as a chip on my shoulder to kind of prove to the team and to the coaches that I felt that I deserved and wanted to work for that Friday spot."
Thornton moved to the Friday spot against North Florida and proved the decision was a wise one as he allowed just five hits in 7.2 scoreless innings and solidified his new role.
"I want to be pitching against the other teams best pitcher," Thornton said. "I love pressure situations and I wanted to be the ace, I wanted to be the go-to-guy. That's kind of my competitive nature and why I wanted to be there."
The wheels kept rolling for Thornton as he racked up his fourth consecutive decision against Pittsburgh on Mar. 8 and added the fifth with seven scoreless innings in a 7-0 win at Maryland. The first no-decision of the season came on the road against Georgia Tech, despite manning the mound for eight innings and allowing just two runs on four hits.
Thornton suffered his first loss of his sophomore season against Duke, giving up two earned runs through seven innings of action. Thornton's tenacity was on display once again as he followed the setback with his first career shutout at Boston College.
"Coach Forbes stresses the importance of bouncing back right after you don't do as well as you want," Thornton said. "You look at guys like Reilly Hovis who do the same thing. They may not have the best outing, but they're going to bounce back and that's the kind of players and teammates that you want to play with. It's just important to keep your confidence and stay positive and move forward from there."
The Tar Heels entered this weekend's series with the Demon Deacons focused on turning the tide in ACC play. That level of importance matched Thornton's style to perfection, and once again, the UNC ace delivered with eight strong innings.
"Trent's pretty good," Fox said after the win. "He was sensational tonight and you get him a lead like that — especially a 7-0 lead — he can kind of sense that and puts the foot on the gas when he needs to. He's good and he's pitched well for us all year and deserved to have a little bit of a cushion tonight instead of pitching with just a one run lead. It's a great outing for him."
Thornton's start to the season has earned him national recognition as USA Baseball announced that he was one of 50 players named to the Golden Spikes Award midseason watch list on Thursday. The statistics speak to his midseason success as Thornton ranks in the top 10 of the ACC in strikeouts, WHIP, hits allowed per nine innings and K/BB ratio.
"Our team and our coaches have a great deal of confidence in him," Fox said. "He's a big time competitor and it's what makes him even better than he is. He's got a lot of talent, but he's got that drive. He wants to be good and wants the ball. That's something that you can't teach or can't coach. He's had it since he stepped on campus."