But then the head coach watched his team lose two straight midweek games to UNC-Wilmington and St John’s before losing a series against in-state rival East Carolina, a weekend set ending with a goose egg from Fox’s offense as ECU won, 12-0. That series-capping defeat gave the Tar Heels a 3-5 mark through eight games.
And now on March 14 the team had hit a new low with the meat of the ACC slate just around the corner.
So Fox pondered a way to inspire his team, a ball club that had lost its three best players to the 2017 MLB Draft the year before and possibly seemed to be on the verge of disaster this season.
He decided to issue his troops a challenge on that fateful day.
“Look, you want to keep doing this?” Fox asked his team. “What kind of season do you want to have? Are we keep going to wallow in self-pity, or are we going to do something about it?”
The team had a three-game home stand with Pittsburgh starting on Friday, March 16. In preparation for that series, Fox and his coaching staff decided to have the hitters bat against pitching machines, instead of the normal routine where the coaches would pitch to them.
The machines were geared to throw 92-94 mph, faster than most college pitchers the team would face. Fox’s reasoning was clear.
“You find out quickly what kind of player you’re dealing with, and what kind of hitters you’re dealing with,” Fox said.
And, as they say, the rest was history.
UNC swept the Panthers into a trash can with a 32-run explosion over three games and quickly went on a five-game winning streak.
But even after the winning streak ended, the fire stayed lit and the team continued to fight.
The Tar Heels finished the regular season with a 28-9 mark over its last 37 games and won the ACC Coastal Division with a 22-8 conference record.
UNC entered the ACC Tournament with the No. 1 overall seed and even after getting eliminated in its first game, the team never lost hope.
Because the Tar Heels had faced the adversity before.
Because their coach had challenged them with their season on the brink and they had responded the way he hoped they would.
And now, here they are, having swept through the Chapel Hill Regional and beating Stetson in two straight Super Regional games to earn a spot in the College World Series.
It’s only fitting that the work Fox did to ignite his team culminated in him winning his first ACC Coach of the Year award.
But maybe Fox knew on March 14 that his team was destined for something bigger. And maybe that’s why he challenged them in a way that made them dig deeper in themselves to find that extra bit of fight.
But even if he didn’t, here they are, on the doorstep of history, just a few wins away from the program’s first College World series championship in school history.
And while there are many people to credit in putting the team in this spot, it isn't hard to argue that it was Fox, in his 20th season at the helm of the program, who saved the season.
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