Sunday, August 20, 2006

Cheer on UNC in College World Series

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on June 17th, 2006

Their coach returned to his alma mater a few years ago, replacing someone who had a reputation for not treating his players terribly well. The coach has a long record of coaching very successful teams that underachieve in the postseason. The team is led by four underclassmen picked in the draft and likely to leave for greener pastures after this postseason, making it imperative that they win the national championship now because it might be a while before they have this good a team again. It sounds an awful lot like the 2004-2005 national championship Carolina basketball team, but the description also fits this year's UNC baseball team -- and if the Diamond Heels play well over the next week they too could finish number one.

It's easy to stop thinking about Carolina sports once the basketball season is over and the students are gone. But if you don't check out the baseball team in the College World Series you're missing out. An obvious reason is that it's probably the best team in the history of the program. But the reason I would count this as my favorite UNC sports team ever in any sport is the way they selflessly work together with a singular focus on winning.

Coach Mike Fox takes a lot of flak from fans for his ever-changing starting lineups.

The Tar Heels have had about as many permutations of the starters this year as they have had games played, and that's one of the reasons I like the team most. Every game there are good players who don't make it into the starting lineup. Folks constantly get moved around in the batting order. These are the kinds of things that prima donna athletes complain about all the time, but it seems like these players take it all in stride and do whatever they can to help the team win regardless of their role in a given game.

Take sophomore outfielder Matt Spencer. He started almost every game for the first couple of months of the season but lately has been coming off the bench, frequently to pinch run.

He did a great job taking second base on a wild pitch in the ninth inning of last Saturday's win over Alabama.

Spencer would be starting every day for just about any other team in the country, but he is doing a great job as a role player here.

This is also a team blessed with players who have shown an ability to persevere and grow.

Take freshman outfielder Mike Cavasinni, for example. At the start of the season he was a dreadful hitter, to the point that he finally lost his spot in the starting lineup. But he kept on working hard, got back into the lineup, and now has become a fearsome leadoff hitter.

Sophomore catcher Benji Johnson is another example of someone who has really grown as a player. As a freshman his at-bats were sometimes painful to watch, and when he hit a home run in the first game of this season I was shocked.

As the season's progressed he's become the team's biggest bopper, hitting some of the longest home runs I've ever seen.

The Tar Heels have three second basemen, Bryan Steed, Garrett Gore and Kyle Shelton, who play almost interchangeably. They all deserve to get more at bats, but they all play their best when they get in the game.

Sophomore outfielder Seth Williams, a big home run hitter as a freshman, has struggled with injuries this year but has adjusted his game to be a dangerous clutch hitter.

Chad Flack got most of the limelight after last Saturday's big win, and justifiably so. But the win would not have been possible if not for the contributions of four other Tar Heels. Third baseman Reid Fronk reached base in both innings, in the eighth inning on a well-timed hit by pitch. Fronk has taken one for the team more than 20 times this year, making him a leading run scorer.

Relievers Matt Danford and Jonathan Hovis each got the team out of dicey situations in the game relatively unscathed. Hovis, the only senior on the team, has played a quiet but integral role on the team for four years. Redshirt pitcher Luke Putkonen pitched a flawless eighth inning, setting the stage for Flack's heroics.

And of course there are the stars who you've probably heard about already. Pitchers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard will be multimillionaires as soon as the season ends. Robert Woodard, who is not as highly acclaimed as his fellow starters, doesn't know how to do anything but win. Josh Horton was an All-American, Tim Federowicz a freshman All-American and Andrew Carignan a lights-out closer. Jay Cox's little brother is the cutest child in the world, providing a lot of entertainment for Boshamer Stadium patrons. Cox is OK himself, as the team's overall best hitter.

This is a special team, and the remaining opportunities to check them out are limited.

All of the College World Series games are on ESPN or ESPN2. They played Friday, and results are in the Sports section today. They will play again Sunday. Take some time out of your life to watch, hopefully, UNC's next national champion team.

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