Commentary

Tar Heels take next step in becoming perennial powerhouse

Originally Published: November 6, 2007
By Will Kimmey | Special to ESPN.com

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A drive down Ridge Road shows a sign of the times for North Carolina's baseball program. A chain-link fence surrounds the site of Boshamer Stadium, the home of the Tar Heels since 1972. The fence went up in mid-October, corralling a construction project to raze the old stadium and rebuild a bigger, better one in its place.

[+] EnlargeMike Fox
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMike Fox took his alma mater from perennial top 25 team to perennial powerhouse.

A similar fence could have gone around the entire program two years ago, as coach Mike Fox helped upgrade a consistent top 25 team into a national power. In 2006, North Carolina made its first appearance in the College World Series since 1989 and then backed it up with by returning to the event in 2007. Although North Carolina lost in the championship series each time, it enters 2008 in great position to advance to Omaha for a third straight season.

"When I came here, we weren't quite there, but we were always ranked in the top 25, mostly the 20s," fifth-year senior Rob Wooten said. "The last two years, we've put ourselves on the map and people think of us as one of the teams in the country."

The program's recent rise isn't the reason for the Boshamer renovation project -- Fox said the discussions began about five years ago. Still, the fact that the Tar Heels posted school records for wins in 2006 and 2007 has helped make the new Boshamer better.

The initial renovation was slated to cost around $7 million, a figure that increased to a reported $15 million during the 2007 season. The excitement of consecutive CWS trips for the first time in school history intensified interest and garnered more donations, and the new projected cost of $25.8 million rivals the $33.8 million that went into the construction of the Dean E. Smith Center.

"Last year helped," said Fox, whose team will play its 2008 home games some 30 miles from campus at the USA Baseball training center in Cary, N.C. "It helped us with the interest, and let's be honest, it helped us with the fund raising. The timing just hit right and honestly, that wasn't the driving force behind us trying to get to Omaha -- 'OK, guys, we need some more money here' -- but it happened to coincide at a good time. I hope we keep that going."

Although nine Tar Heels have joined professional baseball following the past two CWS trips, North Carolina's roster remains flush with talent. Dustin Ackley, who was named national freshman of the year after hitting .402 with an ACC-best 72 RBIs, Chad Flack and Tim Federowicz lead a veteran group of position players who might not need a contribution from a first-year player. And North Carolina expects a pitching staff that ranked 12th in the nation with a 3.52 ERA to be even deeper this season with starters Alex White and Adam Warren returning to the rotation, Wooten moving to the closer's role after setting the school's appearance record and a strong group of power-armed freshmen vying for innings.

[+] EnlargeDustin Ackley
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDustin Ackley, last season's freshman of the year, leads a talented group of Tar Heels in 2008.

"They've just got so many good players one through 35 on that roster," said a recruiting coordinator at a regional rival. "They're as good as anybody this year and should keep on. They could be like Texas in a few years."

When Fox took over at his alma mater in 1998, North Carolina hadn't finished better than fourth place in the Atlantic Coast Conference or won the league tournament since 1990. His first seven years brought more of the same, with one third-place finish in 2003 and several fourths and fifths. Then, North Carolina set a school record with 54 wins in 2006 and broke that mark with 57, adding an ACC tournament title, in 2007.

"I've thought about that a little bit," said Fox, who played in the CWS for North Carolina in 1978. "I think anybody who does something over a 10-year period is going to make changes and have ups and downs. We've changed the attitude and the philosophy, we've recruited a little bit different, and we got a little lucky. I don't know that I can put my finger on one thing that all of a sudden that made us just jump up."

Recruiting, attitude and luck came together in one moment during the 2006 super regional at Alabama. Chad Flack hit a three-run home run in the eighth inning to give North Carolina a lead before Alabama reclaimed it in the top of the ninth. Flack responded with a two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to send North Carolina to Omaha.

A photo of Flack touching home to score the winning run amid a celebratory circle of teammates hangs above Fox's desk in his office.

"That's probably it right there," Fox said, looking over his shoulder at the picture. "That's one of those things where that ball could have been caught. I could have had Flack bunt. … I guess maybe programs have to have a defining moment where all the air is let out and you say 'Finally! We took that next step.' "

Chad Holbrook, North Carolina's associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, likes to joke that the coaching staff got a little smarter after Flack hit those super-regional winning home runs. But the moment was one that exuded the new attitude Fox wanted to foster in his team, a feeling that no matter the score or inning, everyone in the ballpark felt North Carolina was going to do something to win. It's the attitude the Derek Jeter and the Yankees play with, the same one the Red Sox now seem to have, and one Fox had long admired in traditional college powers he competed against such as Florida State and Miami.

[+] EnlargeChad Flack
Douglas Jones/Icon SMIChad Flack is the epitome of North Carolina baseball: a lot of talent, heart and a little bit of luck.

Flack told his teammates before his final at-bat the team wasn't going to lose -- and he meant it. He now says that even if he didn't stroke the game winner, some one else would have. That attitude carried into 2007. North Carolina trailed Georgia Tech 7-0 after the top of the first in the second game of a Sunday doubleheader in May, but battled back for a 14-11 win to capture the series. It trailed in seven of its 10 NCAA tournament wins, and Flack added to his legend by hitting a tiebreaking home run in North Carolina's super-regional clincher against South Carolina.

"We always knew we could win, we knew we were good, but it was, 'Are we going to win?' " Wooten said of his early years at North Carolina. "Now, it's 'We're going to win.' The attitude has changed completely."

The camaraderie and talent of the 2004 and 2005 recruiting classes helped effect that change. The '04 class included pitchers Andrew Miller, Daniel Bard and Robert Woodard, a troika that formed the starting rotation on the 2006 Omaha team. Miller, the 2006 College Player of the Year, and Bard both became first-round picks that year and left for the professional ranks. Woodard stayed for his senior year, becoming the school's all-time wins leader and fronting a second straight Omaha rotation.

The '05 class featured the majority of the position players from the past two CWS teams, including shortstop Josh Horton, third baseman Flack, left fielder Reid Fronk and center fielder Seth Williams, as well as 2007 national saves leader Andrew Carignan.

"I told myself and the coaches when I committed to them that my goal was to take the team to a different level," Flack said. "We had a couple great classes back to back there and all got it done together."

Last year's incoming class included Ackley, White and right fielder Tim Fedroff. The recruits have continued showing up, with Baseball America rating this year's freshman class fourth in the nation. It's a group deep in pitching, led by right-hander Matt Harvey, a Mystic, Conn., product who like Andrew Miller will be the highest drafted high school player to attend college. Right-handers Garrett White, Patrick Johnson and Nate Striz, an unsigned fifth-round pick of the Twins, also have the potential to serve as impact freshmen.

"The program's definitely taking off," said Harvey, who was selected by the Angels in the third round. "I never really even knew they had a baseball team when I was a big fan of the school. I liked basketball and watched football when they played on TV.

"Ever since they started going to the [College] World Series, they came to be known as a place you could go as a top pitcher and come out like Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard. That definitely turned around my view baseball-wise here."

And it doesn't stop there. The top-rated high school prospect for 2008, St. Louis-area right-hander Tim Melville, already has verbally committed to become part of what North Carolina's coaches expect to be another strong class.

North Carolina always had the brand name (thanks to basketball) and a strong academic school as recruiting boons. Add in a new 4,000-seat ballpark that should rival any in college baseball and the experience and television exposure from 11 CWS games the last two years, and there's no reason to expect North Carolina to slip in the recruiting or the national rankings in the coming years.

"The biggest change has been that extra step," Flack said. "They always had the right coaching staff, the right situation. It's always been the right school. It's just once you take that extra step you keep going from there and you stay at the top."

Will Kimmey has covered collegiate baseball for five years. He can be reached at wkimmey@gmail.com.

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