I spent this past weekend strolling the tree-lined pathways on the campus of the University of North Carolina, indulging in some of Chapel Hill’s numerous eating hot spots and, of course, watching baseball.
Make no mistake, UNC is a basketball school. From Michael Jordan to Sam Perkins, Rick Fox to Vince Carter, many notable ballers have worn the Carolina blue that continues to unequivocally engulf the entire region.
Peruse Franklin Street in June, when school is out and we are about as far as we can get from college basketball season, and you would be beleaguered to find one shop not adorned with basketball shirts and jerseys.
Carolina basketball is and always will be the alpha dog in Chapel Hill.
But there’s another program rising to the elite level, and that is Carolina baseball. The Tar Heels don’t spring to mind when you think of the college baseball giants—Texas, Southern California, and Louisiana State—but they are carving out their own path into the annals of college baseball history, at a time when not many outside of Chapel Hill are looking.
The Tar Heels, college baseball’s No. 4 national seed, hosted the East Carolina Pirates last weekend in the NCAA Super Regionals, and they promptly beat them Saturday and Sunday to advance to the College World Series, which will begin Saturday in Omaha, Nebraska.
Only eight teams reach Omaha each spring, a dream that is shared by few and envied by many. One trip to Omaha makes a college career officially one worth cherishing.
So pardon this group of Carolina seniors if they pinch themselves over the next two weeks.
This is the fourth straight CWS appearance for head coach Mike Fox and his Tar Heels, becoming the first Atlantic Coast Conference team to accomplish such a feat.
Also with the newest Omaha trip, UNC became the first ACC school ever to reach a bowl game, the men’s Final Four, and the College World Series in the same season. Not bad for an athletic department defined solely by the hardwood.
Where did the Tar Heels come from? That question is left without an answer as Fox wraps up his 11th season in Chapel Hill.
What is no mystery, though, is that all great programs have the ability to recruit the nation’s top talents, and that is where Fox excels.
Twenty-seven of Fox’s former Tar Heels are currently playing professional baseball, most notably Andrew Miller of the Florida Marlins, Daniel Bard of the Boston Red Sox, and Chris Iannetta of the Colorado Rockies.
Life as an elite program can be difficult at times, especially when signing a handful of the best high school prospects. UNC gets to handpick many of the best players around the country, true, but it is also reality that many of those players never make it to campus, signing a professional contract out of high school instead.
If it weren’t for college baseball’s rule that requires players who enroll at a university to stay put for three seasons, sustaining any type of national pedigree might be virtually impossible.
This year’s team will presumably lose multiple impact players. Junior first baseman Dustin Ackley is long gone, as he is regarded as the best hitter in this year’s draft and is somewhat of a lock to be selected by the Seattle Mariners with the second overall pick in Tuesday’s MLB Amateur Draft.
Ackley draws Chase Utley comparisons. If you have seen him play, you know why, and if you haven’t, that’s all you need to know.
Carolina’s ace, Alex White, had an inconsistent junior season but is still likely to be popped within the first 12 to 15 picks, as his fastball and slider both grade as major league-caliber pitches, and the right hander is closer to the big leagues than any of the acclaimed high school hurlers.
Third baseman Kyle Seager, who went 5-for-9 over the weekend, is also a junior and is expected to be drafted in the first few rounds. Throw in senior Adam Warren, Carolina’s No. 2 starting pitcher, and that’s a lot of talent leaving the club.
Of course, high school outfielder/quarterback Donovan Tate, who is signed to play both sports at UNC (expected to be a top 10 pick), and Jacob Turner, a flame-thrower from St. Louis (expected to go in top 15), probably won’t ever know what a dorm room is.
There’s hope for Coach Fox, though, as both players are represented by Scott Boras and will most likely come with steep price tags, which could scare off many teams.
Such was the case in the 2007 draft with Rick Porcello, a UNC signee who was regarded as the top high school arm in the draft but fell to the Detroit Tigers with the 27th pick due to bonus demands (only to sign the richest high school contract ever, worth a total of $11.1 million; Porcello is now pitching in the big leagues at 20 years old).
But losing recruits to the draft is like having such an amount of wealth that you don’t know how to efficiently invest all of it in different markets. It’s a good problem to have.
Any player would be lucky to spend three or four years in Chapel Hill playing in Boshamer Stadium—undoubtedly one of the nation’s most scenic and prestigious facilities—with the opportunity to reach college baseball’s ultimate stage.
Fox has not won it all during his time in Carolina, coming close twice in '06 and '07, but that remains the only thing the Tar Heels haven’t done in his tenure.
The fact that the Texas Longhorns have won two rings under Auggie Garrido in the past eight seasons, and are vying for a third this year, should put them at the top of the national pecking order for now.
But USC hasn’t been relevant since their national championship in '98, and Cal State Fullerton is the only other perennial powerhouse that has shown the capability of consistently returning to national prominence, winning it all in 2004.
Considering the routine June trips to the Midwest for North Carolina, if the Tar Heels finally win the ring this season, it will cap a résumé that begs to be labeled a dynasty as we welcome the next decade of great programs.
You can reach Teddy Mitrosilis at email@example.com.
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