Monday, June 8, 2009
Updated: June 9, 3:05 PM ET
UNC still searches for national title
By David Albright
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Classes for the first session of the University of North Carolina's summer school on this idyllic campus end Friday.
If you missed it, the good news is that it's not too late to hit another summer session, which starts Saturday about 1,200 miles west at the Omaha branch of UNC. It's one of those accelerated terms that lasts only about two weeks -- at least, the Tar Heels' followers hope it lasts at least until June 22.
That's the last possible week of the 2009 college baseball season, and if Mike Fox's club is still playing that day, UNC will have reached the College World Series championship series for the third time in the past four years.
The only request from Diamond Heel Nation would be a different ending, as UNC is still in search of its first national title.
This June journey to Nebraska will be the fourth consecutive one for Fox, his team and its faithful followers -- a first for an ACC program and the 10th time nationally that a program has accomplished the feat. (Fellow league school Miami did it on two different occasions, but it was before the Hurricanes joined the ACC.)
Think about that for a minute. It means that every player on the roster will know nothing about having a college season end anywhere but the pinnacle of the sport. And seniors Garrett Gore (right fielder), Mike McKee (catcher) and Adam Warren (pitcher) and redshirt junior Mike Cavasinni (outfielder) will have finished every college season in Omaha.
So what has UNC baseball learned from its past three trips to Rosenblatt Stadium?
An appreciation for the red carpets rolled out and the rock star treatment afforded to the players and coaches -- not to mention a taste of the local flavor.
"I've learned where the best steaks are out there, the best milk shakes, the best route to go to get in," Fox said. "Our fans have learned where to park. We've learned a lot. We've learned to enjoy every single second of it. You can't ever take this for granted. I said it after the first, second and third year: We may never go back. And we might not."
It only seems as though the Tar Heels have taken up permanent summer residence in Nebraska every June. But each trip has ended without the one thing the Tar Heels really have gone out there for: a national championship trophy for Boshamer Stadium.
The sparkling new reception area at the completely redone Bosh Pit is a history lesson in UNC baseball. Front and center in the right trophy case are the three plaques from the Heels' past three appearances in Omaha.
They include the two silver ones for the 2006 and 2007 runner-up finishes to repeat champion Oregon State and last year's participant plaque for a run that stopped one game short of the championship series with a loss to eventual champion Fresno State.
If you simply look at the results, the Tar Heels are headed in the wrong direction in Omaha.
Three years ago, UNC won the opening game in the championship series against the Beavers before losing 3-2 in the winner-take-all title game. In 2007, Oregon State made it back-to-back titles with a two-game sweep of Fox's club. And last year, it was the ultimate Cinderella that sent the Heels home early.
The first order of business for No. 4 national seed UNC in reversing that trend will be to get by No. 5 Arizona State on Sunday (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET).
The Sun Devils come in after rolling through both the regional (3-0 record) and super regional (sweep over Clemson) at home, matching the Heels' perfect 5-0 record in NCAA tournament play this year.
"We're going to take the same approach we always have," first baseman Dustin Ackley said. "We're going to go out there and give it our best shot. All of our guys know what's out there, and you know you have to play your best baseball and have a little luck. Hopefully, luck will be on our side this time."
Lucky for UNC, it still has Ackley in the lineup for a few more games before he starts cashing a check to play baseball.
Name an award, and the junior is up for it. And if it wasn't for pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg from San Diego State, Ackley's name likely would be at the top of the MLB draft list. His numbers (.412 batting average, 103 hits, 22 HRs, 70 RBIs in 63 games) simply define gaudy.
|Garrett Gore (4) and UNC hope their CWS trip this year ends in celebration.|
Not far behind is junior Kyle Seager, who is hitting .386 with a team-best 24 doubles to go along with 59 RBIs.
"That's what we've talked about all year long for the other seven guys," Fox said. "You have one objective, and that's to be on base when Dusty and Kyle come to the plate. That's been our offensive motto all year long.
"And our pitching has been good all year long. We think we've got good arms, and I think baseball is dictated by that guy on the mound. We trust our pitchers; they have a lot of confidence, and they make big pitches when they need to."
The staff is led by the one-two punch of starters Alex White (8-4, 4.13 ERA, 109 K's) and Warren (9-2, 3.23 ERA, 97 K's). And the bullpen has a couple of front-line arms in Brian Moran (7-1, 1.95 ERA, 4 saves, .184 opponents' batting average) and Colin Bates (4-2, 2.84 ERA, 6 saves).
"I think we have just as good a chance as anybody," Seager said. "If we do win it, that would be a great way to send out a great group of guys we've had here, and it would be really great for our program. We've put ourselves on a national stage, and I think to win one would really put ourselves in elite company."
This week of anticipation, and Friday's opening ceremonies at Rosenblatt, are always a big part of what makes the reality of living this dream so special.
Right now, eight teams believe they have a legitimate shot at participating in the season's final dog pile. And when you really think about it, there's no such thing as a bad or undeserving national champion. But that doesn't make the other seven programs any less deserving of the accolades from a great season.
So, does UNC need to win the title this year to validate the accomplishments of the past four seasons?
"I'm never going to say that a program is defined by a national title," Fox said. "I refuse to do that. Doesn't mean we aren't going to go out and do our best, but I think you're selling yourself short if you do that. And I'm not trying to set myself up for thinking if we don't [win it], but it is very hard to win a national championship in any sport.
"Our program is defined by a lot more; at least I hope it is."
Maybe so, but a national title would give the Tar Heels a degree with the highest honors from the branch school in Omaha -- and you can't put a price on the value of that summer school education.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All of our guys know what's out there, and you know you have to play your best baseball and have a little luck. Hopefully, luck will be on our side this time.
--UNC first baseman Dustin Ackley, on the CWS