For three straight years, North Carolina has gone to the College World Series. And for three straight years, the Tar Heels have come home empty-handed. Could this year be different? North Carolina's ability to recruit, combined with its veteran leadership and outstanding pitching, may make the difference in Omaha.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of every program. You need talent to compete for the national championship -- and talent is something that UNC has had an abundance of in the past four years. During that period, the Tar Heels have won 205 games, tied with Rice for the most in college baseball, and very few teams have recruited better than North Carolina.
"Recruiting, initially, is more important than coaching," said coach Mike Fox, who is heading into his 11th year at his alma mater. "If you don't have good players, if you don't have talent, I don't think the best coach in the world is going to make you a consistent winner."
North Carolina's 2008 recruiting class is a solid crop of kids who have the potential to make a huge impact. If the Heels are going to make another run for the championship, they will need to count on their incoming freshmen to help fill some holes -- most notably those left behind by the departures of Chad Flack, Tim Federowicz, Kyle Shelton and Tim Fedroff, a seventh-round pick who recently signed with the Cleveland Indians.
"We are excited about all of our freshmen," Fox said. "They are going to contribute."
Quinton Miller boasts a low-90s fastballs and plus off-speed pitches. He will complement a pitching staff that is already considered one of the best in baseball.
Successful recruiting has eased the pain of what UNC lost offensively from last year's team. The Tar Heels return 29 of the 35 players from last year's College World Series team. The void created by losing Flack, Federowicz, Shelton and Fedroff should be filled by a mix of this year's potential top-10 recruiting class and a couple of players coming off of the bench. Fox suggests two in particular: "Mark Fleury has had a terrific summer in the Cape. He made the all-star team and hit a home run in the all-star game, and Greg Holt has tremendous power."
Both should step in and add immediate offensive relief. Fleury would take over catching duties, and Holt would play at first. The offense should be potent enough to win a lot games.
In the competitive world of college recruiting, in which high school players are allowed to sign major league contracts, how is North Carolina -- a team still searching for its first title -- able to sustain its recruiting efforts? Baseball America's college writer Aaron Fitt explains, "It's the brand name that they have. Brand names are important in college sports. The campus is beautiful; they have good academics. They have the whole package. When you throw in the baseball program that is on the rise, kids can see that this program is heading in the right direction."
Miller, a 2008 signee, agrees: "I fell in love with the campus once I stepped foot on it. I love the atmosphere; I love how it is a true college town."
In addition to top-notch recruiting, the Tar Heels boast leadership and experience in the form of one of college baseball's best junior classes: Dustin Ackley, Alex White and Kyle Seager. With two trips to Omaha under their belts -- including playing in a championship series -- they are acutely aware of what it will take to get back.
Ackley hit over .400 in both his freshman and sophomore years. Seager made great strides from his freshman to his sophomore year: In 2007, he hit .308 with two home runs and 30 RBIs. Last season, he hit .347 with nine home runs and led the team with 75 RBIs. White also made an impressive leap. In 2007, he had a 4.94 ERA with six wins. In 2008, he had a 2.83 ERA and 13 wins. All three were part of the 2006 recruiting class that Baseball America ranked eighth. Looking back, Fitt admits, "That class was absolutely huge. I don't think we realized at the time how good it would be."
"Dustin Ackley is the best player I have ever coached in 25 years, Kyle Seager is not far behind, [plus] Tim Fedroff and Alex White," said Fox, days before Fedroff signed with the Indians. "[They] are as good of players as we have had in this program by far."
The bulk of North Carolina's roster consists of juniors and sophomores (24 of the 35 players). White sees the value of leadership in his team: "Seager is very vocal; he will take control of that offense. Dustin is kind of quiet but he leads with his actions, and he is one of the best hitters without a doubt I have ever seen."
With Ackley and Seager leading the team, Fitt sees the potential with this offense. "You got Dustin Ackley, probably the best hitter in the nation, and that is a great place to start," Fitt said. "Kyle Seager blossomed into an elite player -- a guy who is just an RBI machine."
The Heels should score enough runs to allow them to rely on their strength: pitching. The past five national champions have all had clutch pitching down the stretch; it may be the single most important component for winning a championship. North Carolina returns its entire starting rotation from a staff that boasted an NCAA-leading 2.92 ERA.
"They had the two best power arms in Omaha this year, as far as starting pitchers go, with Alex White and Matt Harvey. I think both those guys have a chance to be top-five overall picks -- White in '09 and Harvey in '10," said Fitt.
With White, Harvey and Adam Warren returning, UNC brings back a combined 29-7 record. The pitching staff, which was considered one of the best in the country last season, loses just one significant contributor, closer Rob Wooten. Replacing Wooten won't be easy. In 2008, he led the team with five saves and had a 1.87 ERA. Fitt says the Tar Heels have a perfect replacement in sophomore Nate Striz.
"He is just a bulldog of a right-hander with power stuff. He can run his fastball into the mid-90s," Fitt said. "A guy who wrestled alligators growing up in Florida, he is tailor-made for the closer role."
With the three returning weekend starters and Striz adding some power to the closer role, the pitching staff should power its way to Omaha. "I think with the pitching staff we have coming in, I think we will have one of the top pitching staffs in the country next year," Seager said.
Everything seems to be in place for a title run in 2009; North Carolina's recruiting has enabled it to consistently keep blue-chip talent on the field and fill the voids left on offense from the draft and graduation.
Seth Miller is a former collegiate baseball player at Clemson. He can be reached at Seth.Miller@espn.com.