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Diamond Heels rely on late-game comeback to open super regional against West Virginia

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UNC junior outfielder Vance Honeycutt (7) embraces redshirt sophomore outfielder Casey Cook (16) after UNC’s win against West Virginia in the NCAA super regional game at Boshamer Stadium on Friday, June 7, 2024. UNC won 8-6.

As soon as Vance Honeycutt hit the ball, he knew it was gone.

That's why — as soon as it skyrocketed to left field — the junior center fielder dropped his bat and put his right arm up. He jogged around the bases. When he rounded third, he slowed down, took his helmet off and started to celebrate as his teammates met him at home plate.

In the mob, Honeycutt's jersey was ripped off and thrown up in the air. With the celebrations nearing the mound, sophomore pitcher Cameron Padgett held Honeycutt’s jersey up to the crowd away from the group. 

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Diamond Heels sat tied 6-6 with West Virginia during the first game of the Chapel Hill Super Regional on Friday night. On a 3-1 count, Honeycutt made the possibility of Mountaineer takeover in extra innings a pipe dream with a 425-foot two-run homer. But after being down 6-5to begin the bottom of the ninth, Honeycutt's moon shot symbolized what the Tar Heels have trademarked in the postseason: play until the last out. 

Before Honeycutt’s moment and the Diamond Heels’ comeback was made possible, it was first-year catcher Luke Stevenson’s time for a comeback.

In the top of the fourth inning, Stevenson missed the tag at home plate on West Virginia’s Brodie Kresser. The Mountaineer slipped his hand under Stevenson’s glove, bringing West Virginia within two runs instead of an inning ending play.

And in the ninth inning with the score 6-5, redemption stared him right in the face. 

“I kind of messed up the tag and had to pick my team up right there so I wanted to get the run back,” Stevenson said. “And, like I said, going to the ninth, I was just trying to get something going, and that’s a tag that I need to make and I’m aware of that, and I’m going to make it again and it’s going to happen in a big moment.”

After seeing the Mountaineers’ Derek Clark for three prior at bats — who pitched eight and one-third innings and 144 total pitches — Stevenson said he began to understand Clark’s pitching sequences and kept seeing the ball better with each at bat.

On the first pitch to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning, Stevenson smashed a solo shot to center field that flew just over West Virginia's center fielder Aaron Jamison’s glove, tying the game at six.

But this wouldn't have been possible without another player in search of atonement.

Just last Friday night against Long Island University in the first round of the Chapel Hill Regional, senior pitcher Matt Poston replaced redshirt sophomore Dalton Pence in the ninth inning with no outs and a runner on first.

With the Tar Heels up 5-4, Poston pushed LIU down to its last out before the floodgates opened. The Sharks scored four runs with two outs including a two run shot on a splitter that Poston left hanging over the plate. 

Despite that, head coach Scott Forbes called on Poston again just a week later in the top of the seventh inning, inheriting runners on first and second with no outs. 

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UNC head coach Scott Forbes takes notes during the NCAA super regional game against West Virginia at Boshamer Stadium on Friday, June 7, 2024. UNC won 8-6.

“It’s hard not to think about [last week], obviously,” Poston said. “But like I said, I kind of went in there thinking, I can’t do any worse so might as well just throw what I have — if it works, it works and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

And this time, it worked. 

Poston escaped the jam in the top of the seventh, retiring three batters in a row and striking out two. Then, after hitting the leadoff batter in the eighth inning, Poston once again retired three straight Mountaineers.

In the ninth, he faced just four batters and ended the inning, keeping the Tar Heels within one run and giving his offense a chance to do what they have done all season: play all 27 outs. 

“We had a really good feeling about Matt,” Forbes said. “He’s been really good all year, a good matchup against West Virginia. He’s been one of our horses. He didn’t pitch a lot, obviously, recently, but I wasn’t surprised that he pitched like he did.” 

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For both Poston and Stevenson, their nights seemed fitting for what North Carolina has been able to do: make those comebacks time and time again.

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UNC junior outfielder Vance Honeycutt (7) appears elated as he rounds the third base after hitting the game winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of thNCAA super regional game against West Virginia at Boshamer Stadium on Friday, June 7, 2024. UNC won 8-6.

And when Honeycutt sealed the game, it was written in stone. 

Even with the fairytale endings the Tar Heels have experienced this postseason and again on Friday night, Forbes knows they can’t look back. With North Carolina just one win away from Omaha, Neb. and the College World Series berth, he is keeping their focus in the present.  

“Our guys also know they can't, you know, they can't be looking in the rear view mirror,” Forbes said. “And this team, it’s just kind of been how they've been all year. Now, they found different ways to win, and that's the mark of a good team.”

@mdmaynard74

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com