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June 23, 2011
Steve Phillips, Assistant Director of Communications for the Atlantic Coast Conference, takes you Beyond the ACCtion in Omaha for the 2011 College World Series. Check theACC.com daily for more entries.
OMAHA, Neb. - In the aftermath of Wednesday night's 5-1 loss to Vanderbilt that ended North Carolina's 2011 College World Series run and its season, Tar Heel coach Mike Fox kept things simple in the way of analysis.
"We just got beaten by a better club, and tonight it's as simple as that," Fox said of the Commodores, who handed UNC both of its losses in double-elimination bracket play. "Vanderbilt's got a terrific team. It will be interesting to see how they do in the World Series from here on out."
Keyed by a three-run homer by Connor Harrell - his second against the Tar Heels in this CWS - and a solo shot by Curt Casaii, the Commodores (54-11) built a 5-0 lead against UNC starter Greg Holt after three innings. Four Tar Heel relievers checked Vanderbilt the rest of the way, with R.C Orlan turning in a particularly impressive 3.2 innings. But UNC managed just four hits off Vandy starter Taylor Hill and reliever Corey Williams and could not muster an effective counter-punch.
Not that the Tar Heels didn't have chances. UNC left nine runners on base, including four in scoring position. It continued a disappointing trend in this CWS for the Tar Heels, who stranded a total of 34 runners in three games.
"You've got to tip your hat to their pitchers," Fox said. "It's a one-on-one battle. Sometimes the pitcher wins; sometimes the hitter wins.
"That's probably what will be written about, that we left a lot of people on base out here for three games. But a lot of that has to do with the other team, and we were facing some pretty good arms."
Many viewed this season as one in which North Carolina (51-16) "overachieved" and returned to national prominence after a "down" year in 2010. While there was some measure of truth in each observation, each sold the overall state of UNC's program a bit short.
The ACC coaches voted the Tar Heels to finish fourth in the Coastal Division in last January's preseason poll. UNC finished third - a half-game ahead of Miami. The Tar Heels actually met expectations - at least on paper. And considering that the Tar Heels and Hurricanes each finished the regular season ranked among the nation's top 16 teams, a middle-of-the-pack placement in the rugged Coastal Division (or a prediction of such) in 2011 was anything but a badge of dishonor.
Secondly, the Tar Heels' 2010 season, while disappointing in comparison to their recent standards, was not a complete disaster. While UNC failed to reach the College World Series for the first time in five seasons and did not qualify for the ACC Tournament, they lost just six non-conference games and finished with an NCAA RPI ranking of 24. They won two NCAA postseason games and closed the year with a 38-22 record after dropping a pair of one-run road games - including one in extra innings - to eventual CWS participant Oklahoma in the Norman Regional.
So while UNC was "back" in 2011 in terms of having a College World Series team and a 50-win season, this was a program that never really went away. The Tar Heels returned to their previous level of excellence behind a blend of veterans and talented newcomers.
Few foresaw that senior right-hander Patrick Johnson would blossom into one of the nation's elite pitchers, winning 13 games and earning mention on several All-America teams.
Freshman Colin Moran - whose preseason claims to fame included having an uncle who starred at UNC and in the majors (B.J. Surhoff) and a brother who earned All-America honors as a UNC reliever (Brian Moran) - carved a name for himself by leading the ACC in RBI, earning conference Freshman of the Year honors and, finally, first-team All-America acclaim from Baseball America.
Freshman left-handed Kent Emanuel began the season as a midweek starter, but soon pushed his way into the weekend rotation. His strong finish produced a 9-1 season that culminated with a four-hit shutout of nationally fifth-ranked Texas in the Tar Heels' second CWS game on Monday.
"I don't think anybody expected us to be here, to end our season here or to even be here at the start of the season," Fox said. "It's just a a great credit to our players and how committed they were just to make it this far. It's obviously very difficult to win the national championship. We gave it all we had, but I'm proud that we were able to end our season in Omaha in the College World Series, and these guys got to experience it."
Moran, Emanuel and several other key players in UNC's 2011 success story will return next season, and their primary mission will be a return trip to Omaha. Now that the Tar Heels have re-acquainted themselves with the surroundings, they hope to stick around a little longer on their next visit.
"Obviously, we were happy to get here," said junior Jacob Stallings, who doubled twice to account for half of UNC's hit total on Wednesday night. "But once we were here, I think we wish we would have played a little better."