To make matters worse, reigning ACC Freshman of the Year Ashton McGee was mired in the midst of a slump that would last most of the season. Center fielder Brandon Riley also had a slow start out of the gate after being one of the team’s most reliable hitters as a sophomore. But still, it was only Feb. 25.
Then March came, and with it, more struggles.
After sweeping Liberty at home in a three-game set, UNC traveled to Louisville and promptly lost two-of-three games against the Cardinals. On March 14, the team hit rock bottom by losing at home to Gardner-Webb, 1-0.
From there, Mike Fox issued his challenge. And things started to click.
UNC took its frustrations out on a weak Pittsburgh squad, routing the Panthers for 32 runs in a three-game series in Chapel Hill. The hitting explosion against the ACC opponent seemed to revive the Tar Heels with the bulk of ACC play looming ahead.
The team looked different starting with that first game on March 16. The Tar Heels finished the regular season with a 28-9 mark in their final 37 games, winning the ACC Coastal Division and earning the No. 1 seed in the ACC Championship.
But it was a somewhat new cast of protagonists that got the team to its second consecutive coastal division title.
Shortstop Ike Freeman, who Fox called the team’s MVP, tied for second among all players with 30 RBI in conference play, and was named an All-ACC third team selection.
First baseman Michael Busch followed a quiet first-year campaign with a big sophomore season and was a second team All-ACC pick after scorching a team-high 11 home runs and 51 RBI during the regular season.
Busch was joined on that team by Riley, who, after struggling early, hit .405 over his last 20 regular season contests and boasted a .311 mark in conference play.
Third baseman Kyle Datres, who is in many ways the leader of this gritty bunch, earned first team honors while leading the team in three categories including hits and doubles.
Fox, the man who lit a fire under his team, was named ACC Coach of the Year for the first time in his 20 seasons as the man in charge of his alma mater.
But there were less heralded heroes as well.
Cooper Criswell, who started the season as a middle reliever after transferring from junior college, had become the team’s Friday starter late in the season and was 4-2 with a 2.84 earned run average heading into postseason play.
Relievers Brett Daniels and Caden O’Brien helped stabilize the Tar Heel bullpen with a combined 11-0 mark while both posting ERAs under three.
After failing to make the semifinals in the ACC Championship, UNC started the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional as the No. 6 national seed with plenty of confidence and one goal in mind — to win and get people to stop talking about the Davidson defeat from the season before.
The Tar Heels won without much drama involved, sweeping their opposition in three games and earning a spot in the Super Regional.
Stetson was next, but the Tar Heels swept the Hatters without much resistance in two games.
February could not have seemed any further away as the program headed back to the College World Series for the first time since 2013.
The opening could not have turned out any better. UNC won, 8-6, over Oregon State, a team that had been the cause of so much heartache by twice snatching national championships from Fox's ball club in 2006 and 2007.
It seemed like the Tar Heels were headed back to the championship round for the first time since that 2007 season. But Mississippi State routed UNC in the second game, 12-2, forcing an elimination contest with those same Beavers from before.
Just like Oregon State ended UNC’s season in 2006 and 2007, it did so again, 11 years later.
Now, the offseason has begun and with it, key decisions for some Tar Heels to make.
With nine players being drafted, it is likely the team will look somewhat different next year.
But Busch will be back. So will Freeman, Dalatri and O'Brien. Others will attempt to step up to fill the roles of those players gone.
And the team will likely have motivation to get back to baseball's promise land for another chance at glory.
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