Remember that NCAA regional disappointment that has haunted the North Carolina baseball team since last June?
Neither do the Tar Heels.
At least not anymore now that the bitter taste of those stunning upsets at the hands of Davidson have finally been cleansed from their palate. They officially became a thing of the past Saturday after a 7-5 win against Stetson at Boshamer Stadium that sends coach Mike Fox’s team back to the College World Series for the first time since 2013.
“What happened last year?” third baseman Kyle Datres deadpanned when asked about the motivation that has fueled him and his teammates throughout the season.
Two days after UNC exorcised the ghosts of its NCAA tournament past, rival Duke was provided with a rallying cry for next year by barely missing out on its first trip to Omaha since 1961.
After splitting the first two games of their Super Regional series against Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, and extending their winning streak to five in elimination situations this postseason with an 11-2 victory on Sunday, the Blue Devils dropped a 6-2 decision Monday that ended the winningest season in school history.
The Red Raiders hit three home runs, then broke the game open by scoring twice in the eighth to end a season in which Duke (45-18) set a school record for wins in a season and tied a program mark with seven Major League draft choices.
“There was nothing about what we did where I felt we didn’t play well, we didn’t compete well,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “I thought we competed great. I thought we stayed in the moment well. But we just didn’t come up with that one big hit when we needed it.”
UNC, on the other hand, got plenty of big hits against a Stetson pitching staff that came into Chapel Hill with the nation’s best ERA and an 18-game winning streak dating back to April 22.
Datres got things going early with a single on the first pitch of Saturday’s clincher to spark a decisive first-inning rally that saw UNC score four times to take a lead it would never relinquish.
The Tar Heels (43-18) also beat the Hatters 7-4 in a game that followed an eerily similar script.
For the second day in a row they built what appeared to be a comfortable lead, only to have to hang on for dear life in the ninth inning as Stetson brought the potential go-ahead run to the plate in the form of cleanup hitter Brooks Wilson.
On Friday, Wilson hit a towering drive that left fielder Ashton McGee tracked down on the warning track for the final out. Saturday, Wilson hit the ball even harder and farther. But again, his blast was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
This time Brandon Riley made a leaping catch against the wall, right in front of the 400-foot sign in straightaway center field.
“He hit it to the deepest part of the park and that helped,” right fielder Cody Roberts said. “The question was if it was going to hit the wall before he got there.”
He did, setting off a joyous dogpile of Tar Heels in the middle of the diamond. It was a celebration a full year in the making.
“I’m unbelievably happy for these kids,” Fox said. “They get to experience something that’s going to be a lifetime memory for them. This is one of the more special teams I’ve been able to coach here. There’s something about them. To say we’re excited about going to Omaha is probably the biggest understatement.”
UNC will play Oregon State in its College World Series opener this weekend in Omaha. It’s a rematch of the 2006 and ’07 championship series in which the Beavers beat the Tar Heels to win back-to-back titles.
“Being a senior, this is why I came back,” second baseman Zack Gahagan said. “It’s just an amazing feeling. No amount of money could change this feeling.”