Gameday: UNC vs. MSU

OMAHA, Neb. --- For years, traditional powers like Mississippi State were annual fixtures in Omaha, but upstarts like North Carolina have given the stalwarts something to think about. The Tar Heels and Bulldogs meet tonight at 7 p.m. EST (ESPN2).

Stanford, Southern Cal and LSU didn't even qualify for this year's NCAA Tournament, and Texas, Miami and FSU will be watching today's start to the College World Series on TV.

Of course Arizona State, Cal State-Fullerton and Rice know their way around Rosenblatt Stadium (23,100) and have toured inside the geodesic dome at the adjacent Omaha Zoo. But the Tar Heels (53-13), which are making their first back-to-back trip in school history, hope they have catapulted themselves to college baseball's elite as well.

"I wasn't quite sure how our kids would respond in the fall when they came back, but we have a very veteran group," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "They were determined. The ACC wars prepare you. It's been a very easy team to coach, actually."

The Bulldogs (38-20) are back for an eighth appearance but for just the first time since 1998. Veteran coach Ron Polk is as savvy on the sidelines as he is witty at the press conference podium. He has twice been named the national coach of the year, yet he's never hoisted the big trophy.

Polk believes his team has recovered from earlier adversity, and is playing its best baseball of the season.

"When we play (UNC), seven of the position players, including the DH, will be players that did not play that position three weeks ago," Polk said. "We called our AAA farm club and got some more players in… No, we can't do that unfortunately in college baseball. But we lost four one-run games in four two-run games because we had some injuries to key players."

No longer playing amidst the shadows cast by Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard, right hander Robert Woodard (10-2, 3.01 ERA) is the Tar Heels' ace this year. His coming out party may have occurred last season, when he threw a three-hit shutout against Clemson in the second game of the CWS.

The opportunity to return, Woodard admits, was the primary reason he decided to return for his senior campaign, which has helped him move up from a 46th round pick by St. Louis in 2006 to a 20th round selection by San Diego this year.

"I told my parents that if we hadn't had a legitimate shot, I would have probably gone ahead and signed," Woodard said. "Last year's team was so special, but I certainly knew we had a great group of freshmen coming in. I knew we would have the opportunity."

In Woodard, Carolina has a big-time pitcher to start the rotation, and plenty of solid arms behind him in the bullpen. Four of the five Tar Heel wins in the post season have featured late-inning comebacks, and one of the reasons UNC is here is due to its stellar pitching staff.

Widely considered the second-best remaining team in the competition (behind the Owls), Carolina appears to be even better equipped to finish the job this time around, with hitters like Dustin Ackley, who set a freshman record at UNC with 111 hits this season. Ackley (.416) leads a deep lineup of .300-plus averages, including frequent ninth-hole hitter Garrett Gore (.333).

Ackley, Josh Horton, Reid Fronk and Chad Flack give the Tar Heels plenty of pop. All are capable of playing long ball, but more often than that, doubles and triples fill in the gaps when they're not leaving the yard.

Last year's defense was its downfall, right down to the decisive play in the final game with Oregon State. The Tar Heels have shored up many of those fielding shortcomings this season, and few weaknesses to point to.

"We're taking it one game at a time, and we'd like a chance to get back to the championship series," Fronk said. "We feel like we have a ball club that can do that."

Vital to MSU's success has been the versatile outfielder-pitcher Mitch Moreland, who Polk says having him hit .338 with nine homers and 60 RBI, as well as 3-0 record and 3.20 ERA out of the bullpen, is "like gold."

Moreland hasn't allowed a run in his last seven appearances, but the key many analysts agree to beating the Bulldogs is jumping on their starting pitching early.

Catcher Ed Easley leads the team with 12 home runs and 63 RBI, and Brandon Turner is batting .397. Jeffrey Rea's 13 stolen bases provides the spark on offense.

"We're here, and we're looking forward to playing the Tar Heels," Polk said. "North Carolina has been tough on Mississippi State. They came to our Regional several years ago and beat us there."

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