A New Chapter

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 11 North Carolina may be lacking the power hitting and veteran live arms that the program has boasted during its four-year College World Series run, but the Tar Heels intend to blend speed on the base paths with plenty of youthful depth in the bullpen for another run at Omaha in 2010.

On the surface, everything seemed to be normal around Boshamer Stadium on Monday afternoon during the 2010 edition of UNC Baseball Media Day. Granted, the word "normal" in Chapel Hill utilizes a slightly different definition than most other collegiate programs, but success in the form of an ACC-record four-straight trips to Omaha has a way of changing things.

Consider this – the Tar Heels enter this weekend's series against George Washington with a top-20 ranking, two starting pitchers on numerous preseason All-America lists (Matt Harvey and Colin Bates), a shortstop (Ryan Graepel) with 70 total postseason at-bats and a senior class with 15 games in Omaha tacked onto its resume.

In almost every college town across the country, that level of hype and expectation can only be found in daydreams or on wild Friday nights. But in the UNC player's lounge underneath the Boshamer concourse, reporters poked and prodded about a potential down year in Mike Fox's 12th season at the helm.

After losing more the 50 percent of the program's hits, RBIs, doubles and triples following the '08 season, North Carolina is now faced with having to replace 53 percent of last season's RBI total (239-of-447) and 67 percent of the team's home runs (46-of-69).

Gone are standouts such as Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Mark Fluery and Garrett Gore in the batter's box, as well as versatile weapons on the mound in Alex White, Adam Warren and Brian Moran.

"We do have some unknowns just because about half of our team is new," Fox said. "Probably the biggest unknown for us is how we're going to be offensively, more than anything else, and who's going to come out of our bullpen."

The known returning quantities, however, are high-end talents that give North Carolina a legitimate chance at booking yet another trip to Omaha in June.

Third baseman Levi Michael (.290) is the only batter back that posted more than 45 RBI (57) or three homeruns (13) in '09, but Graepel (.283, 42 RBI), centerfielder Mike Cavasinni (.272, 24 RBI) and left-fielder Ben Bunting (.336, 37 RBI) provide plenty of gritty experience in the lineup.

Fox will turn to his highly-touted 16-man freshman class, ranked seventh nationally by Baseball America, to fill in the remaining gaps. Brian Goodwin (No. 10 nationally) is expected to start in right field, while Tommy Coyle is slated at second base. Sophomore Jacob Stallings will battle junior college transfer Jesse Wierzbicki for catching honors, and another JUCO transfer, Dillon Hazlett, is entrenched with sophomore Matt Harrison for the first base opening.

Instead of relying on power this season, the Tar Heels will rely on God-given running ability to put runs on the scoreboard.

"If we have a strength offensively, it's that we've got some foot speed," Fox said. "Now, you've got to put the bat on the ball to use it, but this is one of the faster teams that we've had here."

One potential concern is that the fleet-footedness is located primarily in the underclassmen ranks, so the coaching staff has preached to its team about being fearless on the base paths and not allowing anxiety or fright to counterbalance that speed.

"It is going to make our offensive identity a lot different than it has been in the past," Graepel said. "We're losing a lot of production from [Ackley and Seager], but what we're gaining from some of the younger guys that have come in is really invaluable. We're going to steal bases, we're going to hit and run and we're going to be aggressive on the base paths. That's going to be our identity this year."

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Harvey (7-2, 5.40 ERA) headlines UNC's starting pitching rotation, joining former weekday starter Patrick Johnson (2-2, 3.49) and middle reliever Colin Bates (4-4, 3.15 ERA) on the weekend. The rookie class will also deliver several viable options on the mound, including Cody Stiles (No. 50 nationally), Parker Thomas (No. 104) and Tim Brechbuehler (No. 112).

But while the body count may be up in the bullpen, the experience level is down.

"We're going to run some freshmen out of the bullpen, so that's unbalancing to me, but we're going to have to run them out there and see how they do," Fox said. "We've got two or freshmen that are in our top eight or nine, so you're going to see them. And they're going to have good days and they're going to have bad days, just like all of us."

North Carolina was picked to finish third in the Coastal Division in the preseason ACC media poll, and there are not many media members willing to pencil in the Tar Heels for another trip to Omaha quite yet. But outside opinions and views have a way of bouncing off the Boshamer Stadium doors, because in the Tar Heel locker room, it's only winning that matters.

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"I feel like there's always consistency in the sense that we're always going to expect to be good and compete and win," Bates said. "Even though there is turnover, that same mentality has been taught to us by the coaches. We just feel it. I haven't seen anything else since I've been here, so I don't really know any other way other than to expect to compete."

If you were looking for a way to define Fox's program, Bates' comments may be the perfect response. And it's because of that approach that anything less than a serious postseason run would be surprising this spring.


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