OMAHA -- It’s not the first College World Series trip for the North Carolina Tar Heels; Carolina teams have been to Omaha ten times, and now six of the last eight years. But every team is different (only eight Tar Heels on the 2013 postseason roster appeared in a CWS game in 2011), and each must write its own story.
The College World Series is an incredible spectacle. It’s a celebration of college baseball for 11 days, and the players that make it here are treated like royalty. Between the fans desperate for an autograph or a baseball, the media and sponsor obligations and the practices at local fields, it’s enough to overwhelm even the most locked-in student-athletes. So the Tar Heels are attempting to walk the line between being experiencing everything that Omaha and the College World Series have to offer and going about the business of baseball.
On Friday, Carolina went through an open practice at T.D. Ameritrade Park. Young baseball players ringed the entire field, hanging over the fence to ask for a ball, a hat, a high-five anything . . . “You can’t really beat this,” senior first baseman Cody Stubbs said. “This is pretty exciting.” Stubbs is in his final year of college baseball, at his third school. The Waynesville, N.C. native began his career at Tennessee, then spent a season at Walters State before finding a home in Chapel Hill as a junior. “It’s my first time here and this experience so far has been unreal, really, and it hasn’t even started yet.”
Friday night’s opening ceremonies were cut short due to weather just after the teams paraded in through centerfield and into the stadium. Orel Hershiser’s planned appearance was canceled, and the fireworks show was delayed for two hours. But for just a few moments before the rain came, all eight teams stood on the field together. The next time they’d be on that field, it would be for baseball.
“It’s definitely an eye-opener coming here and experiencing this for the first time,” freshman pitcher Trent Thornton said, “but we’re here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to win a national championship, so after opening ceremonies, it’s definitely going to be game on, right first pitch of the N.C. State game.”
Before the team left for Omaha, head coach Mike Fox implored them to enjoy the experience and take it all in, as they might not get another shot. Then assistant Bryant Gaines, a member of four CWS teams in his time at Carolina, addressed the team. “Coach Gaines just pretty much told us we’re here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to win,” Thornton said. “So have fun, enjoy it all but make sure you’re ready to play baseball.”
When Carolina starts play tomorrow, four members of the Tar Heels’ likely starting lineup (Chaz Frank, Brian Holberton, Colin Moran and Kent Emanuel) will be playing in their second College World Series. While those players have a veteran’s perspective, they’re enjoying watching their teammates experience Omaha for the first time. “We’ve got some really talented freshmen and sophomores, and this is their first time coming, and I’m really excited for them to experience this,” Frank said. “It kind of feels familiar to me. I don’t have the jitters and the nervous attitude I did as a first-timer because I’m not new here, but it’s still special to be in Omaha at this time.”
Emanuel said he believes the team will be ready to play come 2 p.m. tomorrow. “I feel like our team’s ready to go,” he said. “We want to play, and we’re here to win.”
The Tar Heels went through a light practice early today at Creighton University. There were certainly some laughs, but the players were careful not to take a play off. “We need to get out here and we know what we need to get done, so we come out here and get it done,” sophomore shortstop Michael Russell said. Russell said he is balancing the fun of Omaha with the business of baseball. “We’re always ready to play, so enjoying myself doesn’t keep me from being ready to play.”
Follow Turner on Twitter.