A Shot At Redemption

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- North Carolina enters the 2007 NCAA Tournament coming off an even better season than the one that fell just inches short of a national title. The pieces are in place to challenge again, but head coach Mike Fox warns a return to Omaha is no rite of passage for the Tar Heels.

"Getting back to the championship game...actually that's a long shot," Fox said. "Any coach will tell you that, because you not only have to have a good team, you have to be lucky as well.

"But more than anything, I think the guys want to experience that again. It's one of the greatest atmospheres ever for an amateur athlete."

Overall No. 3 and regional top-seed UNC (48-12) hosts Jacksonville (34-26) Friday at 6 p.m. at sold out Boshamer Stadium. No. 2 East Carolina (39-21) and No. 3 Western Carolina (40-18) will open the Chapel Hill Regional at 2 p.m.

A little less than a year ago, leading Oregon State in the College World Series title series 1-0, Carolina jumped out to a five-run lead in Game 2. But in a flash, OSU snatched away the UNC's momentum with a seven-run outburst in the fourth inning, en route to a stunning 11-7 comeback victory.

On the next night, the Tar Heels' pitching was outstanding, but fielding cost them the game. The last of four errors produced the go-ahead score for the Beavers.

With two outs in the bottom of the eighth and runners on first and second, Fox brought in Andrew Miller, who got pinch hitter Ryan Gipson to ground to UNC second baseman Bryan Steed. The ball was sharply hit, and Steed handled it cleanly. However, his throw was wide and got past first baseman Tim Federowicz, enabling OSU's Bill Rowe to score and the Beavers claimed their first CWS title with the 3-2 win.

"I just got rid of the ball too quick and the ball went up the line," Steed said after the game. "I just didn't make the play."

That experience hurt, and it hurt a lot. It was a championship game collapse rivaling the '86 Red Sox. And for some, the Heels' heartbreaking finish in '06 is still hard to talk about.

Carolina enters the postseason ranked higher than last season and as hot as it's been in decades. The Tar Heels have won 16 of 19 games, while slugging 23 home runs and committing just 12 errors.

Their production not only spans the statistical chart, but there is balance up and down the batting lineup. Seven players have 33 or more RBI, and Dustin Ackley (2nd in NCAA with 107 hits), Tim Federowicz (ACC sixth-best 58 RBI) and Reid Fronk (8 HR in last 15 games) have driven in 50-plus runs.

From a pitching standpoint, youngsters Alex White (1.93 ERA and 12 K in last three starts) and Luke Putkonen (1.54 ERA and 8 K in last two starts) have filled in superbly following the loss of '06 stalwarts now playing professionally in Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard.

The team's ace, senior right hander Robert Woodard (9-2, 3.29 ERA), is 3-0 in the postseason with a 2.78 ERA over 32 and a third innings. He'll get the opening nod versus the Dolphins.

"It gives our players an advantage, because I think they feel real comfortable with [Woodard] on the mound," Fox said. "In between the white lines, he's an intense competitor."


NORTH CAROLINA
Head Coach: Mike Fox
Record: 48-12
Conference: ACC
Last Appearance: 2006

Roster | Schedule | Stats

"We're ready to get this thing going," Woodard said. "We love winning here, and we're just going to try and build off last week.

"The things that we accomplished last year don't guarantee anything this year, and we're very aware of that. We're just prepared for taking care of Jacksonville Friday night."


EAST CAROLINA
Head Coach: Billy Godwin
Record: 39-21
Conference: C-USA
Last Appearance: 2005

Roster | Schedule | Stats

"Anytime you've beaten a team twice…and they get a chance to beat us now in a game, that really means something," Fox said. "I know Billy, and he'll have his guys ready. They'll look at it as an opportunity to win a big game against us."


WESTERN CAROLINA
Head Coach: Todd Raleigh
Record: 40-18
Conference: Southern
Last Appearance: 2006

Roster | Schedule | Stats

"I think it's a great credit to the state of North Carolina that we've got so many teams in the tournament – North and South Carolina has 10 out of 64. That's pretty good," Fox said.


JACKSONVILLE
Head Coach: Terry Alexander
Record: 34-26
Conference: A-Sun
Last Appearance: 2006

Roster | Schedule | Stats

"[Jacksonville] is a very scrappy bunch," Fox said. "They play really hard. They're aggressive, when you look at their start runners. We'll have to throw a lot of strikes early, and get them in pitchers' counts so they don't run a lot.

"They pitch around the plate. They don't strikeout that many guys, but they don't walk that many either."


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