Tar Heels defy the odds to set up rematch of 2006 CWS finals

OMAHA, Neb. -- Odds played no part in Andrew Carignan's formula for North Carolina's baseball team reaching the College World Series final for the second consecutive year.

"You've definitely got to have a lot of breaks come your way, but with the talent and drive we have -- personally, I expected to be back here," Carignan said Thursday night after saving his school-record 18th game of the season to help put the Tar Heels in a rematch of last year's best-of-three final against defending champion Oregon State. "There's so many teams out there, so many quality opponents that you just never know. I mean, any of those games we've had in the tournament could've gone a different way, but we battled and bounces came our way."

On Thursday, Mike Fox's ninth Carolina club ended a 14-game stretch in which it had hit just two home runs to smack four against Rice's vaunted pitching staff to beat the Owls for a second straight day.

The 7-4 outcome, coming on the heels of Wednesday's 6-1 triumph, meant that for only the second time in the 61-year history of the College World Series the same teams will meet for the title in back-to-back seasons. In 1972 and '73, USC and Arizona State met. The Trojans won both titles.

This year's finals begins at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN).

"I'm exhausted and elated," Fox said. "To be saying we're playing for the national championship again is really kind of surreal right now."

But like Carignan, he's not that surprised.

Fox, who spent 15 years at North Carolina Wesleyan, a Division III school, before getting the job in Chapel Hill, welcomed back six position starters who played in all six games at last year's Series. The Heels also had starting pitcher Robert Woodard (who won twice in Omaha in 2006) and Carignan (who had two saves).

But what most comforted Fox, the starting second baseman on Carolina's 1978 CWS team, was being able to work with a club on which eight of the position starters and three of the top four starters and relievers were home-grown products.

"I've coached 24 years and this has, by far, been the easiest team," Fox said. "It's been a dream, almost. They're very committed and really a good group of kids. They don't even want me to talk to them. I can tell as soon as I open my mouth they all shut down, like 'Look, we know what's going on.'

I don't know what the odds that out of 270-some odd teams [the same] two would make it back. I'm sure they're long. We're happy to be playing, that's for sure.

Mike Fox

"And really, they've been a dedicated group ever since August when we got back [in school]."

Carolina seems pushed to try and erase the painful memory of last year's final game, a 3-2 loss to the Beavers in which the deciding run scored on an error.

This year, the Tar Heels allowed 19 runs while beating Mississippi State and losing to Rice in their first two CWS contests. But while staving off elimination against Louisville and twice against Rice, they gave up a total of just six.

Now with a school-record and nation-high 57 wins, Carolina is on an 18-4 tear in NCAA Tournament play over the past two seasons.

"It's a little different," Carignan, a fifth-round draft pick of the Oakland A's, said about how the past two teams have gone about their business, "just because we've had the experience last year and could kind of build off that a little bit."

The Heels' 25-player roster consists of 18 who were in Omaha in 2006.

"It definitely helps, especially out here. It's just such an overwhelming experience," Carignan said of playing in a Rosenblatt Stadium that's usually overflowing in capacity.

On Thursday, the Atlantic Coast Conference champions combined some rookie talent with their veteran leadership to leave the top-ranked Owls one game shy of reaching the finals for a second straight season. And just like last year, when Oregon State shut them out twice, Rice bowed out after starting the CWS 2-0.

Rice had answered a second-inning home run, which Carolina Freshman of the Year Dustin Ackley sent off the roof of the concourse behind center field, by scoring twice in the top of the third on Diego Seastrunk's two-run, two-out single.

But after Reid Fronk drew a four-pitch leadoff walk, freshman All-American Tim Fedroff hit the next delivery from right-handed sophomore Matt Langwell over the wall in left for his fifth homer of the season.

Langwell had been tagged for just three home runs in 81 innings prior to his first CWS start, and after he left, things didn't go any better for left-handed junior Bobby Bramhall.

Bramhall had allowed two homers in 60 1/3 innings before Thursday, but gave up a solo blast to junior center fielder Seth Williams on his second pitch, in the fourth inning, then watched junior shortstop Josh Horton send his first pitch of the fifth over the wall in right-center.

Horton, who was drafted in the second round by Oakland, Williams and Ackley maintained bragging rights as the Heels' long-ball leaders, as all hit their ninth of the season.

"If you try to hit home runs, you definitely get yourself in trouble. But I think that's why you get in the weight room, why you hit every day to keep that bat speed," Fox said. "We just got some pitches today we got up in the air, and they carried well tonight."

The four homers left his club with an ACC-best 70 on the year.

"We have not tried to rely on the home run, but we've got guys in our lineup, really one through eight, who can hit the ball out at any time," Fox said. "That's a good sign for us. We don't think we're ever really out of a game."

Rice -- which hadn't dropped back-to-back games since late March, hadn't lost to the same team twice in a row all season and had won by 11, 12 and 12 runs in the games that followed its previous three defeats -- had one last burst in it before Carignan came to the rescue.

Having already scored twice in the seventh, the Owls got All-American Joe Savery to the plate with two outs representing the tying run. But Carignan caught Savery looking at a third strike, two pitches after a delivery he'd sent behind Savery's head hit his bat for a foul ball to keep a runner at third from scoring.

The odds of that happening were probably no less astronomical than the ones Fox's club -- and Pat Casey's at Oregon State -- have beaten to meet once again in the finals.

"I don't know what the odds that out of 270-some odd teams [the same] two would make it back," Fox said. "I'm sure they're long. We're happy to be playing, that's for sure."

Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star.