But before the games begin, what must the team do to avoid the deja vu of last year’s elimination?
It starts with starting pitching. Opening day starter Gianluca Dalatri returned to the mound on May 19 against Virginia Tech and pitched four scoreless innings. He followed that performance with five shutout innings last Friday against Georgia Tech. But after Dalatri, the rotation lacks stability.
The sophomore might not get the start on Friday, as head coach Mike Fox could look to hold his best starter for an elimination game. So the question becomes who the team could start in his stead.
All signs point to Cooper Criswell, who started the team’s ACC Tournament opener against Pittsburgh. But the junior college transfer struggled in that game, allowing three runs in 2.1 innings in the loss.
Criswell will need to pitch better against North Carolina A&T. If Criswell struggles early, Fox could look to his bullpen where he has two more than capable arms — senior Brett Daniels and first-year Caden O’Brien.
Daniels has thrived in his senior season, posting a 6-0 record to go along with a 2.35 earned run average. O’Brien’s resume is equally spotless. The young righthander is 5-0 with a 2.37 ERA.
It will be important for Fox to call upon his bullpen without restraint if his starters, specifically Criswell, struggle early.
But even with strong pitching, the Tar Heel bats need to have a strong performance, led by first baseman Michael Busch.
The sophomore is enjoying a much-improved campaign, leading the team in home runs (11), runs batted in (52) and on base percentage (.456).
His play earned him a second team All-ACC selection. He was one of four Tar Heels to receive an All-ACC honor, along with shortstop Ike Freeman, center fielder Brandon Riley and third baseman Kyle Datres.
All four players hit over .300 in conference play and they will need to be just as good in the regional to move UNC forward.
History is on the Tar Heels' side. Five of the last seven times Fox's team has been a top-eight national seed, it made it to the College World Series. But one of those two times it did not was in 2017.
UNC has a chance to rewrite history this weekend and rectify last year's result.
And it all starts on Friday against the Aggies.
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