Marilyn Payne

UNC baseball still seeks CWS return after falling short as National Seed

Posted June 5
Updated June 9

— North Carolina head baseball coach Mike Fox explained his team's 2017 goal simply in the preseason: the Tar Heels wanted two NCAA logos on their outfield walls.

By that definition, UNC accomplished what it set out to do this season.

The team's lone four-year senior, Adam Pate, promised Diamond Heels of seasons past that this year's squad would bring the program back up to standard at the annual First Pitch banquet in January.

"They pretty much did that, got close, not too many teams can say that (they are a national seed)," Fox said.

While being named the NCAA overall No. 2 National Seed surely proves that the team was talented, hardworking and consistent at the same level as the program was between 2006 and 2013, the team's inability to make it out of its own Regional asks if the program is fully back to the standard that head coach Mike Fox developed the program to be a decade ago.

As Davidson continues to play in College Station this weekend, the Wildcats' two wins against Carolina look less like a fluke and the team looks more like it simply knows how to compete beyond its talent.

"If we're going to lose a Regional at home, I'm glad we lost it to a North Carolina team... Well, maybe that's just me trying to find some consolation but some joy over there for those kids, shaking their hands," Fox said. "I've been on the other side, it's pretty special. As much as it hurts, I have to acknowledge that. They came in here and did something pretty special."

North Carolina's regular-season win against the team that eventually ended its season was a signature of the 2017 season and in the final outs of Chapel Hill's first Regional in four years, that signature had the Tar Heels convinced they'd pull off another stunner.

Players and their coach were sure that the ninth-inning rally would happen -- but not fall short -- all were confident and expected it.

"It's what I expected, obviously that makes it that much harder to swallow honestly," Fox said of the close ending to the season. "Just to get that close, that's just hard to take.

"The end of the season is miserable, the last day of the season is the worst part of coaching. But we can really say we fought to the very last out, it's true. It didn't surprise me."

In that way, this season's North Carolina baseball team reflected the signature spirit, the confidence and fight that seemed absent as the program missed the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and 2016.

"It's been special to go from not making a Regional to a National Seed real quick was really fun," Pate said. "(The friendships) that will run deeper than baseball on top of getting our program back on the national radar like it belongs is special.

"It's disappointing, it sucks: you run into a hot team, you think you're going to make it, you think you're going to do it all and it's tough to come to such a quick end."

Despite failing to advance to the program's seventh College World Series, the Tar Heels finished the season by winning every single ACC series they played in. In that respect, the team did something none before it ever had. In a program that set a new "first," season in and out at its peak -- becoming the first ACC program to ever reach four consecutive CWS -- winning all of the conference series on the slate is a nod to returning the program to its standard.

Without a doubt, though, the best-in-a-while UNC season fell short of the ultimate goal and was shy of the marque bench marks -- advancing to a Super Regional and CWS.

A College World Series every season is nearly as high a measuring stick as could ever exist for a program, but for this season's team it was just one trip that it was hoping for.

"You don't expect it to end like this," Pate said. "You hope it's in Omaha."

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