By Turner Walston
They gathered in the player's lounge at Boshamer Stadium on Memorial Day 2016 to watch the Selection Show. The Diamond Heels had finished the regular season at 34-21. Though they'd missed the ACC Tournament with a conference record of 13-17, there was still a shot at the NCAA Tournament. They'd won a series at UCLA to begin the season, then swept Oklahoma State in a matchup of top-11 teams the following weekend. They'd won 18 of their first 20 games on the year and were 21-4 out of conference. But late stumbles in a highly-competitive ACC had cost them.
There was hope of an at-large berth, until head coach Mike Fox walked into the room and instructed the student-athletes to turn off the television. There'd be no need to watch any further, he told them. The season was over.
"You don't forget that," then-junior outfielder Adam Pate said, eleven months later. "The finality. It sticks with you. Guys that were drafted, or those seniors . . . that's how your college career ends. This is it. We figured it would end in a different way. Hopefully, you win it all, but at least you're on the field. Not in front of a TV, waiting to hear from the committee. That was devastating."
The returning Tar Heels took that feeling into the fall, used it as motivation. Joined by a host of talented first-year players, the Diamond Heels had a highly-competitive training season and were determined to carry that into the spring. "We knew we had a good team all fall, playing against each other," said junior infielder Logan Warmoth. "We knew we had great pitching. We were a year older. We knew we were going to have a good lineup and a couple of freshmen were going to be in there every day to help us. That's just what it takes to win."
That confidence inspired Pate, now a senior captain, to speak up at the team's annual First Pitch Dinner in late January in front of Carolina baseball alumni, staff and supporters. The banquet featured a keynote speech by alumnus Walt Weiss and a 10-year reunion of the 2007 College World Series team Tar Heels. The names on that roster read like a who's who of modern Carolina baseball history: White. Warren. Wooten. Flack. Ackley. Seager. Federowicz. Fedroff. Fleury. Gore . . . and on and on. These are the names that took Carolina back to Omaha, that did the work to make Carolina a consistent top-ten program. The 2007 Tar Heels were the second straight Carolina group to reach Omaha; there would be two more in the following years and two more in the next four; in the eight seasons from 2007-2013, Carolina would be one of the last eight teams standing six times.
But since that 2013 season, the Tar Heels have played in the NCAA Tournament just once, in 2014, when they lost in a regional in Gainesville, Florida. And so when Pate stood before the hundreds in attendance, he raised a few eyebrows with his Senior Remarks. "You guys set the standard here," he said to the 2007 team. "We know we haven't met it. We're going to change that."
Pate knew something then, that the bitter taste of the two prior years would fuel the run the Diamond Heels are currently enjoying now. The only Tar Heel on the roster to have played in an NCAA Tournament, he recognized in his young teammates the potential to play and win important games in April, May and June. And so his words have become reality three months later. The Tar Heels are 37-9, ranked third nationally in all the major polls and second in RPI. With starters like junior ace J.B. Bukauskas and freshman Gianluca Dalatri and a bullpen anchored by redshirt freshman Josh Hiatt, the Tar Heels are among the nation's best in earned run average. In the field, at the plate and on the base paths, this team is playing with intelligence and grit, as evidenced by their three come-from-behind wins in a sweep of Clemson two weeks ago.
At the plate, the Tar Heels are led by Warmoth, senior outfielder Tyler Lynn and early enrollee Ashton McGee, who muscled his way into the starting lineup in what should be his senior year at Charles B. Aycock High School. Brian Miller, who burst onto the scene two seasons ago as a walk-on, provides leadership at the top of the order and in center field, and the Tar Heels have confidence with the bat in the hands of players like Kyle Datres, Zack Gahagan, Brandon Riley, Cody Roberts and Michael Busch.
Fox said the at-bat that exemplified the season to date was Warmoth's in the Saturday game against the Tigers. The shortstop had gone hitless in four at-bats on Friday, then struck out three times in three tries on Saturday before stepping to the plate in the eighth inning. His team down three runs and with one out, Warmoth singled through the infield. That began a run of five straight singles in a four-run inning, in a game the Tar Heels would win 5-4. "We tell the guys all the time, your last at-bat may be your most important one," Fox said. "If he doesn't forget those three at-bats and get a base hit there in the eighth, the rest of the inning maybe doesn't happen."
Warmoth was simply applying the lessons of the past to the present. "We're all a year older, and we know how to handle failure," he said. "If you talked to Coach Fox, he'd probably say I wouldn't do that a year ago, two years ago, my last at-bat after three strikeouts. It's just repetition of the game, knowing that your last at-bat is the one that matters most."
Tyler Lynn has taken that mentality to his senior season. He transferred to Carolina for the 2016 season from Chattahoochee Valley Community College, and so unlike Pate has never played in a Division I postseason. Though he was not in the starting lineup to begin the season, his attitude and effort has made Fox write his name of late. "Going into the season senior year, you go up with the realization that this could be it for me," he said. "I'm only promised 56 more games, so I'm just going to try to have fun every day and enjoy it more than I used to . . . I want to play in something cool. When you come to Carolina, that's why you come here, to host a regional and play in a regional."
Back to that. With nine games remaining in the regular season, the Tar Heels are positioned for not just an NCAA Tournament bid, not just a regional, but a national seed and the opportunity to play at Boshamer Stadium all the way to a potential trip to Omaha and the College World Series. Pate's words seem prescient now.
"It's easy to say now, because of hindsight, but whenever we step on the field, we feel like we're going to win," Pate said recently. "We have that confidence throughout our whole dugout, our whole locker room, our whole team, that we're going to be tough to beat on any given night."
"You have to believe that you're going to do that, first and foremost," Fox said of Pate's words. "And to stand up there and kind of boldly say it in front of [the 2007 team]. But they really want to do that, and it starts with that mentality and that attitude, and fortunately we've carried it over, and our older guys are showing our younger guys how to do it and how to win at this level."
Every time they take the field, the 2017 Diamond Heels are changing their story. They arrive at Boshamer Stadium ready to work. "Everyone down here preaches process," Pate said. "Not only stay with the process, but enjoy the process. Enjoy the Monday lifts after a long weekend. Enjoy the Thursday lifts before a travel day. But throughout the whole process, day to day, keeping your focus on Omaha."
Perhaps Pate knew what was possible when he gave those remarks three months ago. Perhaps it was a combination of confidence, hope and wishful thinking. But in watching these Tar Heels, it's clear that they believe that they can win. Their senior captain believed in them, and they now believe in themselves. They are living into Pate's promise.