Tobacco Road rivalry goes to Tornado Alley

Jun. 15, 2013 @ 11:10 PM

North Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed, made it to the College World Series. It just took a few more twists and turns than usual.

No matter. Today the Tar Heels start the same as the other trio of teams in their double-elimination pool. And first up is a treat: Tobacco Road rival N.C. State.

Louisiana State, the overall No. 4 seed, and UCLA are also in the pool. The Heels (57-10) and Wolfpack (49-14) go at 3 p.m., with the Tigers (57-9) and Bruins (44-17) at 8. Both games at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., are on ESPN2.

The winners clash at 8 on Tuesday night, the losers at 3 on Tuesday afternoon.

N.C. State, LSU and UCLA went a combined 15-0 in the regional and super regional rounds. The Tar Heels needed two come-from-behind wins in elimination games to make it to the College World Series for the sixth time in eight seasons.

In the decisive game of the Chapel Hill regional, UNC fell behind 8-6 in the ninth inning and 11-8 in the 12th inning before beating Florida Atlantic in 13. Then the Tar Heels were down by two in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s super regional winner-take-all game with South Carolina before pulling out a 5-4 victory.

Will UNC’s run of close games finally hurt the Tar Heels in Omaha, or did fighting through adversity toughen them up for the final round of competition?

“We don’t consider it luck — good fortune maybe,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “You can look at it both those ways. I don’t know if you have enough gold coins in your pocket you can use or not.

“Hopefully, what we’ve been through has helped us in that regard. I’ve always thought our team was pretty tough.”

Of course, the Tar Heels weren’t the only team to win close and late. N.C. State used two ninth-inning comebacks to sweep Rice 2-0 in the super regionals. The Wolfpack scored twice in the final frame of Game 1, then scored three ninth-inning runs in Game 2, eventually winning in 17 innings.

“Our ball club has been a resilient one,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “Lot of injuries early. They persevered. You have to be resilient in this game. It’s the only way you can get by. It toughens you up if you can weather some storms, and they did.”

Still, the past four champions — Arizona in 2012, South Carolina in 2011 and 2010 and LSU in 2009 — all went undefeated en route to Omaha. And none of Fox’s five previous teams that made it to the College World Series were tripped up before reaching the College World Series.

That didn’t concern Fox when he spoke Friday from Omaha. The important thing was that he was there.

“I think everybody knows it’s extremely difficult to get here,” Fox said. “The parity in college baseball is at the highest level that it’s ever been, and all the games in the super regionals and the regionals that were played throughout the country were evidence of that. Just very close, hard-fought games.”

The other side of the World Series pool play started Saturday with Mississippi State facing Oregon State and Indiana battling Louisville.

Following the completion of pool play, which could come as soon as Friday, the best-of-3 championship series between the two pool winners will be next Monday through Wednesday, June 24-26.

Contact the writer at hgutmann@heraldsun.com.