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June 1, 2013North Carolina's opponent in Saturday night's second game of the Chapel Hill Regional, the 30-28 Tigers of Towson University, are one of the true feel-good stories of collegiate athletics this year, but that doesn't mean that the Diamond Heels want to continue the school's improbable run this spring at their own expense.
Towson's baseball program was on life support as recently as early spring, on the chopping block of University cuts in March and April before a late push in May (and appropriations of $300,000 by the state of Maryland) saved the program at least through 2015.
With a losing record in the regular season at 26-28, few could have expected Towson would even be still playing right now, much less taking on top-seeded North Carolina Saturday in an NCAA Tournament Winner's Bracket game with a chance to be in the driver's seat of the Chapel Hill Regional, just one victory away from a berth in a Super Regional.
But that's what's happened after the Tigers ran roughshod over three conference foes to win the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament last week to punch the league's NCAA berth, and with Friday afternoon's 7-2 win over Florida Atlantic, in which nine different Towson players got base hits to set up the showdown with North Carolina.
"First, Towson and (Friday starter) Mike Volpe pitched and played a fantastic ball game," said Florida Atlantic head coach John McCormack. "We were told before we got here that they were an emotional team and they kind of feed off each other and they did a fantastic job doing that."
On the whole Towson is a relatively young team (just six seniors on the roster), which is one of the reasons why they were preparing for a mass exodus of players from the school if the baseball program had indeed been shut down after this season. But now the program has entirely new life, and a win Saturday over the Diamond Heels would make a statement that would likely draw national headlines.
In Friday's win over Florida Atlantic the Tigers were paced by senior catcher Andrew Parker, who belted a three-home homer during the decisive sixth inning, in which five runs were scored. The homer was Parker's eleventh of the season.
On the mound Towson got seven shutout innings from Volpe, who allowed just four hits and left in the bottom of the eighth with the Tigers in control of the school's first NCAA Tournament victory since 1991, which was also the last time the school reached the NCAAs.
"I'm thrilled our kids have a future," Towson coach Mike Gottlieb said after Friday's win. "I'm thrilled I'm not looking for a job. I'm thrilled after 22 years personally, we're able to be back here in this environment. It was a long time without getting here. Just to be able to do that again after such a drought and at my age, that's very rewarding."
Along with Parker, Towson is led offensively by designated hitter Kurt Wertz, a .341 hitter with a team-best 13 homers coming into the NCAA Tournament, as well as left fielder and cleanup hitter Peter Bowles (.325, eight homers, 47 RBIs), and right fielder Dominic Fratanuono (.345, eight homers, 51 RBIs, 14 stolen bases).
Between them, Wertz, Bowles, and Fratanuouno---the heart of the Towson lineup as the No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 batters---combined for four hits, three runs, and two RBIs in Friday afternoon's triumph over Florida Atlantic.
"They swing the bat," said Florida Atlantic's McCormack of the Towson hitters. "Some people had told us they're difficult to pitch to because they just get up there and swing. They're very, very aggressive. It's not like they have a pattern to what they do. They just kind of get up there and swing and hack the ball around the field, which is exactly what they did (in Friday's victory). They saw good pitches and hit them. It's a simple approach, and nine times out of ten, it works very well."
The top-seeded Diamond Heels, fresh off a hard-fought 6-3 win Friday night against Canisius in their own NCAA Tournament opener, will send Southpaw ace Kent Emanuel to the hill Saturday night, while Towson will likely counter with Brandon Gonnella.
At least on paper, this would seem to be a huge advantage for Carolina, as Emanuel comes into Saturday's game with a 10-3 record, a 2.11 ERA, a recent shutout against Miami in the ACC Tournament last week, and a building reputation for being a dominant starter in the postseason and in other high-pressure games.
Gonnella, a right-handed junior, counters with a 4-4 overall record, and a 5.22 ERA.
Sounds like the kind of matchup that favors for the Diamond Heels, but if Towson hits the ball anything like they did Friday afternoon against Florida Atlantic, they could definitely make things interesting.
Stay tuned to Tar Heel Illustrated throughout the weekend for more coverage of the Chapel Hill Regional, as North Carolina looks to advance to another Super Regional.