Things just seem different: the chemistry is stronger, the friendships are better, the idea seems possible.
This team, the 2015 North Carolina baseball team, feels comfortable. It feels right. It feels like the 2013 squad that made it to the College World Series for the sixth time in an eight-year span nearly two years ago.
Quietly led by first-round draft pick and then UNC junior Colin Moran, that 2013 team was chock-full of talent and experience. Kent Emanuel, Chaz Frank, Brian Holberton, Hobbs Johnson and Cody Stubbs all followed Moran’s lead and were drafted that June, and when Chris Munnelly signed a free agent contract with the Houston Astros, that put every graduating senior in the pros.
That group slashed through records, establishing new program highs in wins, runs, walks and shutouts, while winning 59 games—one game short of an ACC record. The trip to Omaha was the program’s 10th, and UNC packed its bags for Nebraska as ACC Regular Season and Tournament Champions. The historical season started and ended with the one thing no team can have too much of: chemistry.
Raburn and Hovis both know what that felt like. They were part of it as freshmen. And now as they kick off their junior season, that potential—that promise—feels like it’s there again, something they both agreed the 2014 squad lacked.
“We were just divided last year,” Hovis said. “I think we wanted it to be the same team as the year before, because the year before we were—I don’t know—we had 35 friends in there.”
That closeness feels like it’s back this time around. Neither Raburn nor Hovis could exactly put their fingers on what went wrong in 2014, but the disconnect was obvious from a record standpoint, as the Tar Heels went 35-27 a season ago—a far cry from the 59-12 record they boasted in 2013. Hovis suggested it had something to do with not involving last year’s freshmen class.
“That was probably a fault of our sophomores and juniors,” he said.
But if there’s any concern about the inclusiveness of this year’s squad, it was quickly put to rest not long after fall ball started for UNC and coach Mike Fox, who enters his 16th season in Chapel Hill with a 694-274-1 overall UNC record.
“We had so much fun together this fall. We did some crazy things together. We stayed here over fall break for the first time in my time here,” he said. “We went bowling, whitewater rafting. We went to Paul Shuey’s farm and went fishing together. The guys just really seemed like they had a great time together. I think that’s so important.”
The Tar Heels didn’t make the same mistake twice in terms of the freshmen, and Fox said this year there is already a mutual respect established between the freshmen and their upper-class counterparts—an important dynamic seeing that UNC brings in a slew of youthful talent.
“We’ve got 13 freshmen and two transfers,” Fox said. “It’s a little unusual for us.”
While some of Fox’s most talented recruits—Braxton Davidson, Jack Flaherty, Forrest Wall, Joe Gatto, Cameron Varga and Mitch Keller—were drafted and won’t be in Chapel Hill, Fox is still left with plenty of depth back at the Bosh.
The freshman class was named No. 6 and 9 by Baseball America and Perfect Game, respectively. The leaders of the class are J.B. Bukauskas, the state of Virginia’s second-best player by Perfect Game, Ryder Ryan and Hunter Williams. Ryder is a third baseman out of Huntsville, ranked the No. 1 third baseman in North Carolina and Williams was ranked the No. 5 first baseman in the country by Perfect Game. They’ll join veterans Landon Lassiter and Skye Bolt, whom many have high expectations for in their junior seasons.
“Obviously Landon really picked it up the last half of the season. He was hurt starting the season and I think that really set him back,” Fox said. “I think Skye had another good fall for us. Skye is just such a tremendous talent.”
Additionally, the Tar Heels picked up Josh Merrigan, who played D-I baseball before transferring to Chipola Junior College in Florida and now is back with D-I competition. The lefty batter played at Georgia State his freshman year and was named the conference’s Rookie of the Year in 2013, bringing that award to Georgia State for the first time in school history. He was also a freshman All-American and Fox said he’s a weapon on the basepaths, something UNC needs more of after scoring just over five runs per game last season. In 2013, that number was around seven throughout the regular season.
“He runs well,” Fox said. “We’re going to need him and Elijah Sutherland, who’s a shortstop for us, to come in and get a chance on the field to play for us.”
The infield could see completely different people at third and short, perhaps even second and first as well, Fox said. Michael Russell, who led UNC in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, and was tied for home runs was selected in the fifth round of MLB’s draft and now is in the Rays organization.
And while the infield has its question marks, Fox’s pitching staff is something he doesn’t seem to have too many concerns about. Rightfully so.
Hovis and fellow junior Trent Thornton both received preseason All-America honors and senior Benton Moss turned down the San Francisco Giants’ offer to stay at North Carolina for his senior season. Chris McCue, the veteran closer whose season was cut short in 2014 after he had surgery for a blood clot in his right shoulder, is back and healthy after registering a team-high seven saves, and sophomore Zac Gallen is back with 85 1/ 3 innings of college competition under his belt.
That’s just the upperclassmen. Fox said his freshman staff has been the most impressive group of the year so far, and that he has little concerns about them jumping straight into collegiate play after seeing them perform in the Fall World Series.
“I think Brett Daniels really threw the ball well—probably the most consistent freshman pitcher we had from outing to outing. Hansen Butler, Jason Morgan and Hunter Williams: I thought those guys all threw well for us at times and showed that they’ve got a chance to pitch and be successful at this level,” Fox said, adding about the freshman position players: “Zack Gahagan, he’s got a chance to play for us somewhere. Logan Warmoth, as well. And of course Ryder Ryan has a chance, also.”
By NCAA standards the Tar Heels were officially allowed to begin practice Jan. 7, giving them about five weeks to get re-acclimated to the diamond before Seton Hall comes into town. Fox said one of the regulations in the beginning is that UNC can only have four players practice at a time, and that the focus is getting the pitchers comfortable again and the batters swinging immediately.
His hope is that his athletes did their part over winter break, something Raburn said isn’t ever an issue.
“Coach Fox always tells us we’re not like normal college students. When we all committed, we all knew what we were signing up for and I think we want to do that more than we want to go have a break or things like that.
“We take pride in being a baseball player and playing for Carolina. A lot of kids would die to wear Carolina on their chest, but only 35 kids a year get to do it in the whole country.”
Now the only thing left to do is win the championship they came so close to in 2013 before coming home empty-handed. The tools are there, and the chemistry, too.
But don’t tell Hovis that. That’s not on the radar—yet.
“I’d say it’s in the back of my mind, but not the forefront. I know how hard it is to get there and we need to accomplish simple goals before we can look at that one,” he said. “Look at 2013, we barely made it there and we were the best team in the nation, so it’s tough. We’ll see.”
This is an excerpt from the March 2015 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.
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