By Turner Walston
They dogpiled near first base, the Davidson Wildcats, celebrating their first-ever regional championship in their first-ever NCAA Tournament. Just after Durin O'Linger raced Carolina's Michael Busch to the bag, just after umpire Greg Harmon signaled Busch out, they dogpiled. Hats and gloves flew into the air, the Wildcats poured of the dugout, and they dogpiled. This was Davidson baseball history.
Not ten minutes later, the door to the Carolina baseball players' lounge swung open. Brian Miller and Adam Pate stepped up onto the makeshift podium in the room where six days ago the team had gathered to learn that they'd be the No. 2 seed in this tournament, with the chance to play at home all the way to Omaha and the College World Series.
On Sunday Miller had led off and played center field. Pate, the only four-year senior on the Tar Heel roster, hadn't appeared in the game. Their eyes were red. They sat there, staring at nothing, body language telling the whole story. The Tar Heels' season had ended after a 2-1 loss. This was the other side of that dogpile. Baseball will break your heart.
Miller and Pate's head coach joined them, and Mike Fox was quick to congratulate Davidson and head coach Dick Cooke. But he was heartbroken, too. Of course he was. "I'm just sorry to see our season come to an end," he said, "because this is one of the more enjoyable ones I've had in my career, just because of kids like these two to my right."
It can be a cruel thing, really, the postgame press conference in an NCAA tournament. It's the end of the line for somebody, nearly every time. And yet moments after a game has concluded, following an NCAA-mandated 'cooling-off period,' coaches and student-athletes face the media. Coaches are experienced in this ritual. Often, they've been here before, many times. They get paid for this. Student-athletes? Their time here is finite, and the postgame press conference is the end of a season if not a college career.
The way Sunday's game ended made the postgame process especially cruel. Carolina trailed by a run entering the bottom of the ninth. Kyle Datres grounded out to the mound on a 3-2 pitch. Then Brandon Riley singled to left. Tyler Lynn singled too, off the pitcher's foot. Zack Gahagan singled to right, and Riley tried to score from second. The throw came in late. Riley slid around Jake Sidwell and missed the plate. He reached for it a second time, touched home, but not before Sidwell tagged him, according to home plate umpire Chris Marshall. With two down and runners at the corners, then, Busch hit the ball to Davidson first baseman Brian Fortier, who back-handed it and tossed it to O'Linger. Tar Heel first base coach Scott Forbes was right there and adamant that O'Linger had missed the bag, but Harmon made the call.
What did you all think about Brandon's slide, from your perspective? Was he safe?
"Yeah, but what are you supposed to do?" Pate said. And what are you supposed to do? You do what you're already doing, be it student-athlete, coach or fan. Your season is on the line. It could be over in a blink, so of course he was safe. In your eyes, at the very least.
And then it is really over, and you replay every close play, every at-bat. The ball that got through third base that allowed Davidson's run to score. The brilliant plays that Kyle Datres made in the aftermath. The sliders from Josh Hiatt and the hardest change-up he's ever thrown. The plays that gave you the chance to win and the plays that cost you.
"You hope he's safe," Pate said. "You feel like he's safe, but there's a lot of other things that Davidson did well. It wasn't just one play, but yeah, it was tough."
It's the toughest out of your career, if you're Adam Pate. He graduated from Carolina nearly a month ago. He's married. He's an adult now. He'll take off that Carolina jersey for the final time at some point. Maybe he has by now, but he didn't seem in a hurry to remove it Sunday night.
"It's been special," he said of his time at Carolina and his senior year in particular when asked to, impossibly, put it into perspective so quickly after it all ended. "To go from not making a regional to a national seed real quick was really fun, really special. This has been the best time of my life."
In January, Pate stood in front of the Diamond Heels club, stood in front of his teammates, alumni and fans, stood in front of the 2007 Tar Heels team celebrating their tenth anniversary of a trip to Omaha, and vowed that the 2017 team would meet the standard that those great Tar Heel teams set. They hadn't reached the postseason since 2014, and Pate was the only Tar Heel to have even played in an NCAA Regional, but he knew what this team was capable of, and they delivered.
Running into a hot Davidson team at the wrong time doesn't negate that. The 2017 Diamond Heels fought to the last out, literally. Nearly literally fought, in fact, as Riley burst up from the ground and argued his cause, his teammates spilling out of the dugout, too. That's passion. That's competitive fire. That's brotherhood formed over the course of months and years. And a season's end doesn't take that away.
"That's just the story of our team all year," Miller said. "We've been through a lot of ups and a lot of downs, and it was just special. We were all confident and we expected it, but it's just the story of our season, guys just fighting to the end."
That they did.
After the Wildcats' initial dogpile, the Tar Heels lined up to shake their hands. Fox congratulated Cooke. Fox hated how he was feeling, but he took some solace in shaking the hand of the coach of a fellow North Carolina team.
"I've been on the other side of that, so that's pretty special, for Dick and those kids and that program," Fox said. "As much as it hurts, I have to acknowledge that, because they came in here and did something pretty special. That's the great thing about the game, but you know . . . "
He didn't finish that sentence. He didn't have to, because he was hurting, and didn't need the words to convey it.
Pate and Miller exited the dais while Fox wrapped up his comments. The roar of the Davidson team and their fans continued, creeping into the room when the door swung open. That's the other side of that podium.
Mike Fox had his jersey on, too. He sat in the gloaming of the season, so soon after the sun had set on it, and sighed, silently. There would be time for reflection, time to celebrate the season's successes, but right now, it was, well, it was hard to take.
"The end of the season is miserable," he said. "The last day of the season is miserable. It's the worst part of coaching, especially when you've got such a good group."
Baseball will break your heart.
Six days ago, Fox told season-ticket holders gathered for the NCAA Selection Show that this Tar Heel team was his most special group, that in 35 years as a head coach, he'd never had a group of personalities quite like this. He'd admit a bit later that maybe he shouldn't have said that; he's had some very special teams. But it was clear that this particular group, the one that muscled Carolina baseball back to the national spotlight, back to relevance, was one of his most prized.
And then late Sunday night, Fox said he was proud of Pate for making such a bold statement five months ago. "He's a big part of why we got to this point, and he didn't even play much," Fox said. "What a special kid that is. I won't coach too many like those two right there, I'll tell you that," referring to Miller and Pate. "They are as good as they get, those two. Character off the chart. So that'll be a friendship that will last a long, long time."
This 2017 Tar Heel baseball team won't make it to Omaha, but it was full of players like Pate and Miller, a group determined to etch its name in Tar Heel history. This is a foundational team, one that may be pointed to in the future as a team that charted a path back to Omaha, even if this road ended Chapel Hill on a Sunday night.
They won 49 of 63 games. They captured a conference division championship and a national seed. They thrilled us on the mound, from J.B. Bukauskas to Gianluca Dalatri to Josh Hiatt. They amazed us at the plate and in the field, from Logan Warmoth to Ashton McGee to Cody Roberts and Tyler Lynn. And they represented our university with all the class that we've come to expect. No, they won't win a national championship, but they will continue to make us proud.
Baseball will break your heart. But from student-athlete to coach to fan, it will give you so much more.