Heels Power Past Rice, Advance to Finals For Second Straight Year

There’s a saying in baseball that chicks dig the long ball, and if that’s true, they sure haven’t been digging North Carolina lately. But on Thursday night, the ladies had to love what they saw as the Tar Heels exploded for four homeruns in a 7-4 victory over Rice (56-14), earning them a trip to the finals of the College World Series for the second year in a row.

Carolina (57-14) is not a team that relies on the long ball to win games; entering Thursday, the team had just two homeruns in its past 14 contests. They take pride in their timely hitting and solid defense. Then again, one or two (or four) homers never hurt anybody, certainly not Coach Mike Fox ’78.

“I’m not sure where the home runs came from tonight,” Fox said of his team going yard in four consecutive innings. “We saved them all up.”

Juniors Josh Horton and Seth Williams had a home run apiece, but two of the biggest bats Thursday night belonged to a pair of players new on the Omaha scene: true freshmen Dustin Ackley and Tim Fedroff. Ackley, fresh off his slump-snapping performance Wednesday, started the second by ripping a home run to straightaway center field off Owls starter Matt Langwell (8-2), giving the Heels an early 1-0 cushion. The freshman first baseman added a double for good measure and finished the day 2-for-3 with an RBI, not to mention a nifty running catch in foul territory that made Sportscenter’s “Top Plays.”

Ackley’s fellow freshman Tim Fedroff hit a two-run opposite field homer to left in the third to put the Heels ahead 3-2, despite having spent the previous night in the hospital instead of the hotel. The rookie right fielder wasn’t feeling well, but to the 22,344 people at Rosenblatt Stadium, Fedroff looked just fine.

Designated hitter Kyle Seager, another Tar Heel freshman, didn’t go deep, but he put the game out of reach with a two-RBI single in the fifth that put the Heels up 7-2, a lead they would never relinquish. The trio of freshmen proved that while experience on this stage certainly helps, it isn’t everything.

Youth also was served on the mound, as sophomore Adam Warren (12-0) went six strong innings to get the win. Warren allowed three runs on three hits and struck out two in his first postseason start.

Now that Carolina has dispatched Rice, who for the second straight year needed one win to advance to the finals but were again denied, they must now turn their attention to a familiar foe: Oregon State, the team that won the title last year and is looking to repeat.

The Beavers breezed through their side of the bracket undefeated to set up a best-of-three series with the Heels in a rematch of last year’s final (Saturday at 6 p.m.; it will be aired on ESPN). It is only the second finals rematch in the CWS’s 61-year history. Last year, the roles were reversed, as the Heels were the team with no losses in their bracket, and Oregon State was the team entering the final with one loss.

“Last year, we did win three in a row, and it didn’t go so well for us,” said closer Andrew Carignan, who earned his record-tying fifth career CWS save and 18th of the season. “This year, it is the other way around, as we lost a game and came back. Hope it goes better for us this way.”

“I’m sure everyone else is thrilled that the match-up is the same as last year,” Fox said. “To say we’ll be playing for the national championship is surreal. We just want to take a deep breath.”

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