'That's How Hard It Is': Coach Reflects on Third Season to End at College World Series

UNC baseball.The good news and the bad news for the Carolina baseball team is the same: The Tar Heels ended their season at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the third year in a row.

“It’s where you want to end your season,” said head coach Mike Fox ’78 during a sit-down interview in his office following the 2008 season. “It’s the worst place to end your season, but it’s the best place to end your season.”

Carolina finished the season 54-14 after losing for a second time to eventual national champion Fresno State 6-1 in the double-elimination tournament. The Tar Heels are the only team in the nation with more than 50 wins each of the past three seasons.

While an experienced UNC team with arguably the best pitching staff in the nation entered the World Series as one of the favorites, the landscape changed considerably after the Heels got themselves into the loser’s bracket and had not only to fight good teams but rain delays.

The delays changed pitching availability and the rainouts caused the Heels to have to win three games in a row to reach the finals. One game was played over two days as the game was picked up the next day after a long rain and lightning delay.

Fox refused to blame the weather for the Tar Heels’ elimination. He said the team enjoyed its time together during rain delays –  playing cards, telling jokes, and laughing at the antics of sophomore Mark Fleury, who is kind of like the class clown.

“The players have the same attitude as I do,” Fox said, “So, we’re not going to start the game for an hour and half, where else would I rather be right now?”

‘Playing at a High Level’

Still, the delays gave Fresno State four days between games while the Heels tried to get a game in against Louisiana State University. This gave the Bulldogs a chance to rest their depleted pitching staff while the game starts and stops, and three games in a row, tired Carolina’s pitching staff. “We’ve played three games in a row before,” said Fox, refusing to make excuses.

“Fresno State was playing at a high level – making big pitches, getting home runs from people who don’t normally hit ’em – and that’s what it takes,” he said. “The superstars have to play well, but some of the others guys have to step up.”

For instance, Fox noted that Bulldog shortstop Danny Muno made 25 errors during the season but played errorless ball against the Heels. “He made every single play against us, including some spectacular ones,” he said.

Then, in one game against Georgia in the championship series, Muno made three errors. “If he had made one or two of those errors against us in a 5-3 game, who knows?” Fox said. “When it comes down to it, it was their turn and it wasn’t ours.”

Following the season-ending loss to Fresno State, Fox said that he and the team would focus on the whole season, rather than this one game. “We kinda have to in order to get over the hurt,” he said.

Home Away From Home

The season started with a downer when the team learned that Boshamer Stadium would not be renovated in time for the Heels to play their home games there. While it was especially disappointing for the six seniors, the team vowed not to let it be a negative.

As it turns out, UNC found a home away from home at the USA Baseball Complex in Cary and enjoyed the experience, even with the expansive outfield that contributed to holding the team’s home run totals down this season.

Fox said at first he was just grateful to be playing all the home games at one location rather than perhaps playing some at the Durham Bulls park and some at the Carolina Mudcats field. But it turned out to be a “great experience” at a “beautiful” facility with a “terrific” relationship with officials from USA Baseball and the town of Cary, he said. Plus, the Heels ended up 30-6 at home.

The bus trip seemed especially long from Cary to Chapel Hill, however, Fox said after the Tar Heels lost their first game there in February by a score of 8-6 in 10 innings to Old Dominion.

The Heels, 3-1 at the time, rebounded with five straight victories, including their first win at the USA Baseball facility – a 10-2 rout of William & Mary.

With an 8-1 record, Carolina entered the conference schedule with a three-game series at Duke. After dropping the first game, the Heels took two by a combined score of 18-3.

But, just as fans’ attention was on the upcoming ACC basketball tournament, the UNC baseball team lost another one at home – this one to Coastal Carolina – after giving up six runs in the first inning. “We just tried to erase that one as soon as possible,” Fox said.

Ackley Moves Up in the Order

Carolina then went on a nine-game home win streak, with victories in 15 of the next 17 games. During that stretch, the Heels swept ACC foes Virginia Tech three in a row and took two of three at Maryland.

While Fox made few changes during the season, against the Terrapins he did move leading hitter Dustin Ackley from the third spot in the order to the leadoff spot, where he remained the rest of the season.

Ackley, whom Fox calls the best player in America, was quite the table setter for the Heels as he finished the season with a phenomenal .417 batting average and .503 on-base percentage. The sophomore All-America first baseman from Walnut Cove also had a team-high 82 runs.

After taking two of three from ACC foe Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels were shutout 2-0 by Elon. Fox said the team was “embarrassed” by the loss to the lesser-known North Carolina college team and it served as a lesson about being ready and playing with pride each time out.

The loss might have served as motivation as the Tar Heels went on their longest winning streak of the season, taking 12 games in a row.

“Winning three in a row at Clemson really got us going,” Fox said. “It’s hard to beat Clemson or any ACC team three times in a row at their place.”

During that stretch, the Heels also beat ACC opponent Boston College three straight in Cary. The streak ended with a loss in the second game of a three-game home series against perennial national power and ACC foe Florida State.

By this time, in late April, fans’ attention had turned to baseball and the weather cooperated. As a result, more than 11,000 fans turned out to watch the Heels take two of three from the Seminoles. The rubber game was one of the most important of the season, Fox said.

In that game, second baseman Kyle Seager, a sophomore from Kannapolis, singled in the tying run in the seventh and got a key hit in the 10th inning. Fleury, the Roswell, Ga. sophomore, walked with the bases loaded to force in the winning run. Senior relief pitcher Rob Wooten from Freemont got the win as three UNC pitchers combined on a four-hitter.

After a nine-day break for exams, the Heels won a pair of non-conference games and then took two of three from Virginia. The Carolina players and coaches were disappointed that the last game was shortened by rain in the sixth inning with the Cavaliers holding a tenuous 5-4 lead.

With the regular season down to its last series, the No. 2 ranked Tar Heels went to Miami to take on the No. 1 Hurricanes. Fox said he was hoping for just one win, but the Heels took two of three, ending the season having won every three-game series.

After a 12-11 win over Miami, highlighted by a home run and five RBI from Tim Fedroff, a sophomore from Flagtown, N.J., the Tar Heels took a few days at Disney World in Orlando before heading to the ACC tournament in Jacksonville.

Unfortunately for the Heels, things got a little goofy in the first game against Virginia, a team they were motivated to beat after losing to them in the rain-shortened game less than two weeks earlier.

Carolina rallied in the bottom of the ninth to tie it and then had to rally in the bottom of the 10th to tie it again before giving up two runs in the 11th and falling 8-7.

‘A Lot of Things Have to Fall in Place’

After the ACC tourney, the Heels stood at 46-12 and had done more than enough to earn the right to host an NCAA regional. Carolina beat Mount St. Mary’s and UNC-Wilmington (twice) to advance to the Super Regionals, which the Heels also hosted in Cary.

More than 6,000 fans endured 100-plus degree weather over two days in June as UNC defeated Coastal Carolina 9-4 and 14-4 to advance to the College World Series.

With a strong outing from ace pitcher Alex White, the All-America sophomore from Greenville, the Heels defeated LSU 8-4. But a 5-3 loss to Fresno State put the Tar Heels in the dreaded loser’s bracket, setting up the rain delays.

With their backs to the wall, Tim Federowicz, a junior catcher from Apex, blasted a grand slam in the ninth inning to break a tie and give the Tar Heels a 7-3 victory over LSU.

Carolina had to win two straight over Fresno State to advance to the finals against Georgia. The Heels won the first one as senior Chad Flack of Forest City, provided the heroics with a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth for a 4-3 win.

The magic and the season ended, however, with that 6-1 defeat the next night.

While the Tar Heels have gone to Omaha three years in a row, Fox said it could be “a fleeting thing.” He said teams have to be lucky to get there once, much less three times in a row.

“You have to be good, but a lot of things have to fall in place for you,” he said. “I’m thinking we may not ever get out there again. That’s how hard it is.”

Fox said every coach who has called to congratulate him has said that he “screwed up” by going three years in a row. “They say, ‘You should have spread those babies out,'” he said with a laugh. “They are well meaning and a lot of what they say is true. If we don’t go for the next five years, I know what’s probably comin’.”

‘There’s a High Standard Here’

If he’s implying he might be out if that happens, Carolina fans who tailgated during the Super Regionals, would disagree. It’s not just the winning, they say, that endears them to Fox, but the class he instills and the kind of player he recruits.

“Winning helps, but the coach recruits great kids and has created a great program with a lot of class,” said Morris Stanford ’77, adding that having so many players from North Carolina doesn’t hurt either.

Fox, a native North Carolinian who played second base for the Tar Heels 30 years ago, said, “We want kids to come here for the pride of being here – being a Tar Heel, being at the University of North Carolina – and that starts with in-state kids who may have grown up Carolina fans.”

Of the 35 players on the 2008 team, 26 are from North Carolina. But Fox said he will target the high-profile recruits from out of state as long as he thinks they truly want to be at Carolina and they have a good attitude.

Fans have noticed, and praised Fox, for the respectful attitude the team has during the national anthem for instance and how the players look and conduct themselves.

“You just set a standard – you set the bar,” said Fox, who doesn’t allow his players to wear sunglasses, talk or fidget during the national anthem. “You hope the kids buy in to it.”

Players must also be clean shaven and can’t curse, Fox said. “I tell kids all this from the very beginning when I’m recruiting them,” he said. “We’re not going to ask them to do anything we’re not going to do. There’s a high standard here.”

Post-Season Notes

Tim Federowicz, the junior catcher, was drafted in the seventh round by the Boston Red Sox and will be turning pro.

Tim Fedroff, who batted .404 with a team-high 12 homers, is only a sophomore but because of where his birthday falls, the All-America player is eligible to turn professional. He’s deciding whether to accept an offer from the Cleveland Indians, who selected him in the seventh round of the draft.

Normally players who don’t go pro right out of high school have to stay with their college team at least through their junior year, when most turn 21. Coach Mike Fox was counting on having Fedroff for three years and didn’t realize until after his freshman year that he would be eligible to turn pro after this season. This is the first time the Heels could lose an enrolled player before his junior year.

The Tar Heels have lost three of their high school recruits for next year, however, as they have decided to turn professional instead of entering college. That’s the most that Fox, now in his 10th season as head coach at Carolina, has ever lost from a recruiting class.

The $25.5 million renovation of Boshamer Stadium will be completed prior to the 2009 season. Six seniors – Chad Flack, Mike Facchinei, Kyle Shelton, Tyler Trice, Seth Williams and Rob Wooten – won’t get a chance to play for the Heels there, but after being the most successful senior class ever at UNC, they helped build it.

– Clifton Barnes ’82

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