Built for June
Over the past seven years, Mike Fox’s Tar Heels have been to the College World Series five times. This year’s team, off to the best start in school and ACC history, has designs on a sixth trip. It won’t be easy, but these Diamond Heels appear to have the pieces in place to make a run.
Seven years ago in Tuscaloosa, Chad Flack sent Carolina to the College World Series with one swing of the bat. The walk-off, two-run blast propelled the Tar Heels past Alabama and on to Omaha. A video clip of that home run is played at every home game; after all, it was the moment that Carolina baseball had arrived as a national power.
But Flack himself says the Omaha trips were coming one way or another. “I think that home run got us over the hump, but people don’t realize that was in game two,” he says. “We still had game three we could have won. We probably would have had the odds against us at Alabama, but we set ourselves up that year, and I think it was believing we could make it more than anything.”
Flack recalls that during his recruitment, Fox and then-assistant Chad Holbrook (now the head coach at South Carolina) preached that the pieces were being put into place to make Carolina a nationally recognized program. “They said, ‘We haven’t been there yet, but we’re this close. We’ve got the pieces. We have Daniel Bard. We have Andrew Miller. We really need position players like you, Josh Horton and Reid Fronk to come in, and we want them to be North Carolina guys to help take North Carolina to the next level.’”
Mike Fox’s first Omaha teams got huge contributions from homegrown players, like Flack (Forest City), Bard (Charlotte), Tim Federowicz (Apex) and Robert Woodard (Charlotte), and later Dustin Ackley (Walnut Cove), Alex White (Greenville), Kyle Seager (Kannapolis) and Adam Warren (New Bern). Carolina was playing in Omaha, year after year, and players around the country took notice.
“I think once Coach Fox got this program on TV and seeing that ‘NC,’ I think there’s something about it that’s special,” says Colin Bates, who came to Chapel Hill from Naperville, Illinois. “They brought in so much talent just from North Carolina, but once they started adding guys like (Matt) Harvey and other players from around the country, it’s really taken off.”
The consistent success on the field has allowed Carolina to recruit nationally while maintaining the standards posted in the locker room. “The character, the commitment, the confidence and the competitiveness,” assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Scott Jackson says. “Those are the four things that are going to pretty much determine how well you do here.” Jackson says it started before his time in Chapel Hill, with players like Flack, Horton and Fronk. “Coach (Fox) talks about it all the time. Once we had it in our locker room in 2006, we had to do everything we could do as a coaching staff to never let that go away.”
“Coach doesn’t go out necessarily and get the number one, number two players in the country,” Greg Holt says, “because he likes to get guys who fit the Carolina way, who are strong in their faith, strong in their family and their academics, and who are going to put the work in, day after day, and try to be the best players that they can be.”
During Bates’s recruiting process, Tar Heel associate head coach Scott Forbes sat next to Bates’s father Brian to watch Colin pitch. “The first thing he asked my dad was, ‘What kind of grades does he make?’ It wasn’t ‘Is this a typical outing?’ or ‘How does he usually pitch?’ It was, ‘Is he going to be a student or a liability?’”
The remarkable thing about Carolina’s run of recent success is that Fox has been able to both maintain those standards of off-the-field character and academic performance while fielding the nation’s winningest program since 2006. On the diamond, it’s been the pitching that has set the tone. “Your team is only going to be as good as your pitchers, and that’s something that Coach Forbes and I talk about,” Jackson says. “If you can’t run eight to ten guys out there, with them all being very similar in ability, it’s going to be tough for you to sustain any type of postseason success.”
During the spring of 2009, Jackson’s first in Chapel Hill, he was in awe of the Tar Heel hurlers. For a scrimmage at the USA Baseball National Training Center in Cary, Alex White and Matt Harvey faced off, and later Bates and Brian Moran worked in relief. Jackson coached third base. “I don’t think I was able to give a sign,” he remembers. “It was combined 34 or 36 strikeouts, and that’s when it hit me, ‘This is how you get to Omaha,’ and I’m thinking what it’s like for another team to have to face that level of pitching.”
In recruiting, college baseball coaches sell college baseball itself to high school seniors who are eligible to be drafted by Major League teams. That 2009 team featured Harvey, who had been drafted in the third round in 2007 and White, who was picked in the 14th round in 2006. After three years at Carolina, both were first-round picks.
Jackson says that 2008 Carolina signees Tim Melville and Quinton Miller could have helped a young Tar Heel team in 2010. Harvey and Bates were the most experienced arms on that team, which was eliminated in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament. “We learned a lot from that season, and we said we wanted to have depth,” Forbes says. “You can’t be afraid of having unhappy kids on the bench. If you have that depth, other kids are being pushed.”
In 2011, senior Patrick Johnson won 13 games as the Friday night starter, and freshman Kent Emanuel was outstanding. They and sophomore closer Michael Morin set the tone on the mound and helped carry Carolina back to the College World Series.
Two years later, Emanuel is perhaps the most reliable Friday night starter in the country, and Carolina returned intact the rest of the weekend rotation with sophomore Benton Moss and junior Hobbs Johnson. Out of the bullpen, sophomores Trevor Kelley and Chris McCue set up nicely for freshman closer Trent Thornton.
At the plate, Brian Moran’s little brother Colin, once the final member of the 2010 recruiting class, has blossomed into an All-American. Freshman phenom Skye Bolt was hitting .392 before a broken foot interrupted his season, and junior college transfer Cody Stubbs has become a more disciplined hitter as well.
The program’s ability to recruit nationally has brought cornerstone players to Chapel Hill, but all that could go for naught if not for the chemistry in the locker room. The coaching staff has relied on the players to lead each other. “We’ve had guys manage themselves and check their attitude at the door,” Fox says. “And if not, we’ve had some upperclassmen who have been able to confront other guys, and sometimes they can be more honest with each other and just tell them, right now you’re not good enough to play, or that’s not your role. You’ve got to accept it.”
Senior Chris Munnelly began his career as a weekend starter and has since pitched in just about every role. He can talk to a struggling pitcher because he’s been in their shoes. Chaz Frank wasn’t on the team trip to California two years ago. When another player left the team, Frank was flown in. “He walked into Fullerton with his street clothes on,” Jackson says. “He hasn’t come out of the lineup since.”
Even a player like Tom Zengel, a junior who saw heavy action as a freshman and has seen just an occasional pinch-hit opportunity in 2013, can lead by example. “He gets it,” Fox says. “He’s a good student, and he wants to graduate from the University of North Carolina. He sees the big picture. A lot of kids get locked into today, and ‘Why am I not playing?’ and ‘I want an at-bat,’ but it’s just not like that. He really is happy when we win. That kid’s just as important to our team as anybody else.”
The 2013 Tar Heels began the season as the consensus top team in the country and maintained that through the first two-thirds of the year. The goal is to finish June in that spot. “From what I can tell, this year’s team is one of, if not the most talented team UNC has had,” Flack says. “That’s including the years that I played.”
These Diamond Heels appear to have the pitching, the talent and the chemistry to make another run toward a championship. “It’s been the goal since day one,” Colin Moran says. “We’re still working on it.”