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Friday September 30th

Regional preview: Davidson Wildcats prepare like it's any other game

<p>The Davidson baseball team walks onto Wilson Field for practice on May 30. The Wildcats play&nbsp;North Carolina on Friday at 6 p.m. in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament.</p>
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The Davidson baseball team walks onto Wilson Field for practice on May 30. The Wildcats play North Carolina on Friday at 6 p.m. in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament.

DAVIDSON, N.C. — In this week’s practices, the Davidson Wildcats will not swing their bats any faster than usual. They will not throw the ball any harder than usual. There will be no new drills.

In fact, a player could write down the same practice and pregame routines the baseball team has followed all season, and that schedule would be spot-on for how Davidson will prepare for its first NCAA Tournament game in its 115-year history.

“This is a sport of repetition,” head coach Dick Cooke said. “We’re not going to do anything different.”

Why would they? In Cooke’s 27th season, the Wildcats (32-24) brought home their first conference championship, becoming the first No. 6 seed to win the Atlantic 10 Baseball Tournament. They have hit 70 home runs this year, which ties for 22nd in the nation.

And when they play regional host North Carolina on Friday, they’ll do so with plenty of confidence. They’ve already been in Boshamer Stadium once this season, and they had the Tar Heels on the ropes.

On May 9, Davidson led UNC, 6-3, in the bottom of the ninth inning. But North Carolina did what the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament is supposed to do. It rallied in the form of three straight singles to tie the game and a tenth-inning walk-off courtesy of Ashton McGee.

“We’ve hung with them for eight innings,” said senior right-fielder Will Robertson, who leads the Wildcats with 18 home runs this season. “That gives us a little bit of confidence. I think that they know that we can play ... I’m looking forward to it.”

Familiarity helps, but the team isn’t buying into it too much. Although the Wildcats have never experienced a regional atmosphere, they know it’s a whole different monster.

“I think the environment itself is going to change a little bit,” Cooke said. “And I think it’s important that our guys stay aware of that and don’t change what they’re doing.”

As the visiting team and an underdog, Davidson knows getting overwhelmed early is a possibility. So its coach is sticking to the same mindset he preaches in all aspects of the game — simplicity.

“The only goal we’ve got is for our lead-off guy to get on base to start the game,” Cooke said. “And after that, we go pitch-by-pitch, inning-by-inning. It’s a cliché, but I think it’s really true.”

If the Wildcats are looking to contain UNC’s offense, which ranks among the top 25 nationally in runs per game with 7.2, they’ll need another great performance from Durin O’Linger.

The redshirt senior is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and is headed to pharmacy school next year. He has no plans of continuing his baseball career, so this is it for him.

And after throwing 236 pitches during Davidson’s four-day tournament run, he plans to start on Friday.

The other phase of the game may end up being much more important. Both teams have game-breaking ability with their hitting rotations. The Wildcats hit three home runs in their 7-6 loss to UNC on May 9 and are always a danger to crack another one — more than one — into Boshamer Stadium’s pines.

“Everyone talks about pitching and defense, and that’s a critical part of it,” Cooke said. “But there aren’t a whole lot of 1-0 games in the world. You better be ready to put some numbers up there.”

The team bus leaves on Thursday at 10 a.m. Davidson will arrive in Chapel Hill and practice at 2:30 p.m. There will be nerves and excitement. But the Wildcats will prepare as usual. After all, that’s what they’ve been taught to do — and it’s worked pretty well in 2017.

“You hear that more and more now — ‘it’s all about the process,’” Cooke said.

He paused for a second.

“It’s about the process,” he reassured with smile.


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