Graepel Solidifies Heels' D

On the eve of the NCAA Tournament, UNC head coach Mike Fox knew a change needed to be made. The Tar Heels had completed one of the best regular seasons in school history, but if the team was to have a shot at a championship, the defense had to improve.

The Heels were plagued by errors in the majority of their 12 losses during the regular season (including three or more errors five times), which contributed to 34 unearned runs in those contests. When they limited their errors to only one or less in a game, they had a 40-4 record.

And this problem seemed to rear its head especially on the biggest stage. In UNC's two highest profile series of the season – against Florida State and Miami – the Tar Heels committed 14 errors over six games.

In the heart of the infield, junior shortstop Garrett Gore had committed nine errors through the Tar Heels' first 43 games as of April 23. But the steady defensive play by Gore began to come unraveled thereafter, starting with the weekend series against Florida State. He committed five errors against the Seminoles and finished the regular season with 21 miscues.

"We wanted to stick with Garrett," Fox said, "One thing I hope that we are able to do is stick with our players. We want to give them a chance to work through some issues, offensively, defensively or pitching wise and try to stay with them. Garrett has been a big part of our team the past couple of years."

Yet with the quest to return to the College World Series about to begin, the option to insert defensive standout Ryan Graepel at shortstop began to look like the right move.

"We knew what Ryan would provide to us defensively and perhaps take a bit of pressure off of Garrett putting him in the DH spot," Fox said. "I told our coaches that … this is a move that I definitely have to make."

The decision was not without risk. Should a coach make a major change to a team that has climbed to the top of the national rankings? And what about Graepel's limited experience, and reminders of his first start of the season at Florida Atlantic? That memory hadn't left Fox's mind.

"It shocked us all," Fox recalled of Grapel's struggles back in late February. "I had never seen him bobble two ground balls in a row, much less three in that one inning … I wanted to get him back out there more than I did the rest of the year. I believe he learned from that and is playing with a lot of confidence now."

Needless to say, the decision paid off. Graepel did not commit an error in 19 attempts during the Cary Regional. He was named to the All-Regional Team and solidified his starting position for the Super Regionals.

"He makes every play in practice, just like he did this weekend," Fox said. "So nothing surprises us, in terms of what he does defensively. He doesn't look the greatest sometimes, but the ball gets in the first baseman's glove and that's all [you need]. And he works hard at it."

Carolina finished the regional weekend with two errors and a fielding percentage of .983.

With the Super Regional against Coastal Carolina standing between the Tar Heels and Omaha, defense will again be at the forefront. And therefore, so will Ryan Graepel.

"Coach Fox makes sure to tell us that defense is what will win a championship for us," Graepel said. "He does a good job of keeping that fresh in our minds."


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