By Turner Walston
Believe it or not, it's been 11 years since "Chad Flack just sent Carolina to Omaha." Ten years since a freshman class that included Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Alex White sent them back. Nine years since that sweltering Super Regional against Coastal Carolina in Cary. Eight years since the White-Warren-Harvey weekend rotation. Six years since Chaz Frank ripped a triple to open the 2011 College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park. Four years since Hobbs Johnson threw nothing but fastballs and Brian Holberton and the Tar Heels slid around Brett Austin and NC State in Omaha.
Those teams that went on that run of four straight College World Series appearances, of six in eight years, they are the featured highlights on the Boshamer Stadium video board. They are recent Carolina history.
But they are history, and you'll forgive the current Diamond Heels if they don't want to bask in the accomplishments of teams past, accomplishments they weren't a part of. Just one current Tar Heel, senior outfielder Adam Pate, has played in an NCAA Tournament. That changes this weekend when Carolina hosts the Chapel Hill Regional as the #2 overall national seed.
A year ago on Memorial Day, and indeed two years ago on Memorial Day, the Tar Heels were disappointed. Three years ago, even, they were uneasy, before being sent to the Gainesville Regional. Pate was a freshman in the player's lounge in 2014. He was a sophomore and a junior on teams that didn't make it. This time, he was the senior leader. "My freshman year, we were still kind of sitting on pins and needles watching the show," Pate said Monday. "And of course, the last two years, we know the story there . . . "
This time, there was no uncertainty about the Tar Heels fate. Though they were confident, they found out Sunday evening –on the bus back from Louisville and the ACC Tournament– that they'd definitely be hosting a regional. Monday, they learned they were the #2 overall national seed and would have the opportunity to play at Boshamer Stadium all the way to Omaha, should they keep winning.
"After what we've been through the past two years, the goals we set this fall and all the hard work we put in, it's kind of a big deep breath," said junior centerfielder Brian Miller. "We're excited about going forward and the baseball we have to play here and hopefully the next few weeks, and to end up in Omaha."
"Watching it with the guys and our sports staff, the media all in here, It was really special," Pate said. "To know that this is my last go-round and we're able to do this, it's really cool. This is what we've all been working toward, putting two stickers up on the outfield wall."
Those stickers Pate refers to are the small, blue circles of the NCAA logo. They'd been on the wall since 2013, the last time Carolina hosted a regional. But this fall, Mike Fox took them down.
"They'd just been up there. They blended in to the outfield wall," Pate said. "We took them down this year. Coach took them down in the hopes that we'd earn putting them back up there."
This year's team would have to earn those stickers, earn the right to host. And they did. This week, those blue stickers will return to Boshamer Stadium, just as NCAA Tournament play does.
No Tar Heel, not even Pate, has played in an NCAA tournament game in Boshamer Stadium. Pitching coach Robert Woodard has. Assistant coach Jesse Wierzbicki has. Mike Fox and Scott Forbes have coached in those games. So yes, the Tar Heels are 'back' in the NCAA Tournament. But these Tar Heels are here for the first time.
"For the leadership of the team, the coaches and the staff, they're coming back," said junior ace J.B. Bukauskas. "We're kind of making our first push at it. I think we want to put our own little stamp on this thing and try to do something that nobody else has done yet in North Carolina's program and take it all the way. That would be really special. I think we've got really good leadership, and I'm looking forward to making this run."
So yes, Monday's NCAA Tournament show was a little anti-climactic. But that's preferable to sitting in uncertainty, or having your head coach come in and tell you there's no need to watch. The Tar Heels have more baseball to play in Boshamer Stadium.
Four months ago, when the 2007 Tar Heels were feted for the tenth anniversary of their College World Series run, Pate addressed the audience and told them that he knew the current Tar Heels hadn't met the standard that the alumni had set, and that he and his teammates planned to change that. They have. This is their time.