The Road Back to Omaha

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina landed the No. 3 national seed in the NCAA Tournament and will begin its journey back to Omaha on Friday night against Maine at Boshamer Stadium.




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In addition to the fourth-seeded Black Bears (32-22), the Tar Heels will also host No. 2 seed Florida International (40-18) and No. 3 seed James Madison (40-17) in the Chapel Hill Regional.

North Carolina is a top-4 national seed for the fourth time in the past five seasons. The Tar Heels were the No. 3 seed in 2007 and reached the College World Series championship round before dropping two straight games to national champion Oregon State.

"I didn't want to be No. 1 and I didn't want to be out, so I'll take anything two through eight," UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters following the NCAA Selection Show on Monday afternoon.

History suggests the visiting squads will encounter a significant challenge this weekend. UNC boasts a 31-3 record at home this season and owns a perfect 12-0 record at home in regional action since 2006.

The Tar Heels finished the regular season with the No. 7 ranking in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll, a full nine weeks after that same poll gave UNC its highest ranking of the season – in any of the major polls – at No. 5.

"I think everybody was pretty excited and a little surprised," junior catcher Jacob Stallings said. "I think we expected to be a national seed, but the No. 3 [seed] is definitely a testament to our season and our whole body of work. We flew under the radar a little bit, but now I think people realize what kind of regular season and ACC Tournament we had."

North Carolina entered the 2011 season outside of the top-25 in the major polls primarily due a ninth-place ACC finish last spring along with the loss of talented contributors Matt Harvey, Brian Goodwin and Ryan Graepel. But the 2010 Tar Heels closed the season by winning 14 of their final 19 games, including a pair of losses to host Oklahoma in the Norman Regional.

That initial lack of respect in the polls combined with the hesitancy of the national media to buy into the UNC program as the season progressed presented the Tar Heels with a rallying cry.

"I think we used that to motivate us, that no one really expects a lot out of us [and] that they don't think a lot of us," pitcher Patrick Johnson said. "It was like, ‘We're going to go out and prove them wrong and show them different.' I think we've used that all year."

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Johnson has been one of the key components in directing UNC to 45 wins for just the seventh time in school history. After arthroscopic shoulder surgery last June, the senior righty did not fully recover until several weeks before the season opener. Fox even considered moving Johnson into the bullpen in January, but the Conover, N.C. product emerged as a dominant Friday night starter in posting a 11-1 record with a 2.56 ERA.

Freshman lefty Kent Emanuel (6-1, 2.88 ERA) has served as a solid complement to Johnson in headlining UNC's pitching corps.

When asked if he believed his pitching staff was good enough to get UNC back to Omaha for the fifth time in six years, Fox didn't hesitate when responding with a confident "yes."

"I think we've proven over the course of the year with playing the teams in the ACC, as good as our league was this year, I think we have to hang our hat on that," Fox said. "I think our kids know that. They know that we've played against the best teams in the country all year long and we've been able to hold our own."

North Carolina ranks 43rd nationally in earned run average (3.41) and 10th in fielding percentage (.978), and has sprinkled in timely hitting to field one of the top baseball teams in the country.

"The big thing for us this year, compared to the teams that made it to Omaha in the past, is that it's going to take pitching and defense for us," junior shortstop Levi Michael said. "I think that's been the key for us this year. We've pitched all season long and we've played solid defense, so I think we've got to continue with that if we want to make it back."

If the Tar Heels take care of business this weekend, they will host the winner of the Cal State Fullerton Regional in Super Regional round action next weekend.

2011 NCAA Chapel Hill Regional Schedule
Friday, June 3
Game 1: # 2 FIU (40-18) vs. #3 James Madison (40-17), 1 p.m.
Game 2: #1 North Carolina (45-14) vs. #4 Maine (32-22), 6 p.m.
Saturday, June 4
Game 3: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 1 p.m.
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m.
Sunday, June 5
Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 1 p.m.
Game 6: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, 6 p.m.
Monday, June 6
Game 7: 6 p.m. - If necessary

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