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June 3, 2013Surprising as it sounds, North Carolina is only one loss away from having its dream season robbed at the hands of upstart Florida Atlantic, who by virtue of a three-run homer off the bat of third baseman Ricky Santiago Sunday night, shocked the No. 1 national seed Tar Heels, 3-2.
"The good news is we're going to play tomorrow night. We're going to focus on that, try to put this one behind us as quickly as we can, and be ready to play tomorrow night," said UNC head coach Mike Fox immediately after Sunday's game.
"You just come in and give it your best effort, and just try to stay positive when something like happens---especially when Hobbs (Johnson) has been throwing well and they hadn't had a hit all game. You just try to stay positive for the next game," said senior center fielder Chaz Frank, who had four hits and a run in Sunday's loss.
Such is the nature of postseason NCAA baseball, which can humble even the best of college teams but at least offers the chance of redemption with a double-elimination format compared to the cruel season-ending outcomes that are all too common in the single-elimination NCAA basketball tournament.
North Carolina took a similarly stunning loss last year in the same round of the NCAA Tournament, in fact a more dramatic loss to St. John's on a walk-off homer that ultimately helped the visitors from New York City win the Regional.
Many of the same players from that Tar Heel team are of course back this year, but Coach Fox insisted after Sunday's loss that his team won't be thinking back to 2012 and how things got derailed under similar circumstances.
"That was last year," said Fox. "This is a new team, a new year. We're one win away from our next goal, and that's what we have to focus on, and that's what we will focus on."
And while it's certainly a little disconcerting for everyone involved with UNC baseball that the Diamond Heels face a do-or-die elimination game Monday evening back at Boshamer Stadium, there is one statistic that's worth mentioning.
The 54-8 Tar Heels haven't lost two straight games all season.
Yes, you read that right.
Carolina hasn't had a losing streak literally the entire season, and obviously they're not looking to start one now when it matters the most.
One of the big keys for UNC on Monday night will be whether third baseman and ACC Player of the Year Colin Moran can break out of a recent struggle at the plate.
Though he did drive in Frank with the game's first run Sunday evening in the top of the first inning, Moran had multiple chances later put the Owls away but he couldn't come through, including a costly double play in the sixth inning with the bases loaded.
UNC will more than likely find Moran at the plate in another big spot Monday night, and the Tar Heel standout needs to come through to overcome his 3-for-13 start so far in the Regional and to help Carolina move past this obstacle.
"I haven't seen Colin swing at first pitches five times---maybe ten---all year long. So that tells you, just watching, he's a little anxious. Trying to do a little too much," said Coach Fox. "Hitting is the most difficult skill in sport, and when it's not going your way you do press a little bit and try too hard. I can't fault him for trying too hard."
Fox confirmed that he'll be sending Chris Munnelly to the mound on Monday as starting pitcher against the Owls, while Florida Atlantic coach John McCormack wasn't committed right away.
"We'll sit down and talk, see who's available, and we'll go from there," said McCormack on Monday's FAU pitching prospects. "Alex Koji is an option. Jeremy Strawn is going to pitch at some point. It might be an option to start him (Strawn) and maybe get two (innings) out of him and then go from there."
"Mike (Spano) is an option. (Kyle) Miller, he's had five or six starts during the year," he added.
Now playing their fifth game in the last four days, Florida Atlantic is running largely on adrenaline and youthful spirit in this stage of the tournament, and certainly some talent as well.
"We've just got to to it all again," said Coach McCormack about coming back on Monday for another one. "Everybody is going to take a cold shower, get some ice, and pull it out of a hat."
"We're excited. I think we're a little more focused," added Santiago, whose big blast on Sunday necessitated everyone coming back Monday evening.
"We have some good leaders that's not going to let us get too excited. We've got another ballgame. We'll come in here focused and see what we can do."
For both teams, it's now a simple matter of going out and playing a game they love that they've been playing all their lives.
The only thing is, one of them won't get another chance to play this year, at least on their college teams.
For the seniors on both teams, as well as the juniors headed off to the pros, tonight will be all she wrote for the loser.
For Carolina, given all they've been through as a team and the milestones they've reached over the past few months, it's hard to imagine them coming this far and not getting through the Chapel Hill Regional.
It's difficult to envision this team not writing more chapters and creating more heroics in the upcoming weekends, while being bounced at home before the Super Regional for the second straight spring.
For FAU to get past this Diamond Heel team and move on to the Super Regional, they'll have earned it under the most difficult of circumstances---a road environment, a deep and gifted pitching staff, and some of the top hitters in the college game.
If they can pull it off, they deserve a tip of the cap.
But all things considered, given Carolina's track record of success in recent months, Sunday night could wind up being little more than a speed bump in their road to the College World Series.
They did get pretty lucky, after all, two nights in a row against Clemson and N.C. State last week in the ACC Tournament, grabbing a pair of wins over 32 innings of action.
Frankly, if you're a 'law of averages' kind of person, you can easily make the argument that this UNC squad was due for a little adversity like what FAU gave them Sunday night.
And even though technically the season is on the line against the fired-up Owls, this veteran-laden, confident UNC ballclub has to feel confident that they can overcome this temporary setback and get back on the track to Omaha with a win on Monday.
"This club has pretty much led themselves all year. As everybody knows, we haven't lost two games in a row all year long. So we'll focus on that," said Coach Fox. "I trust my team. I've got some good leaders. I'm sure they're not very happy (right now). We do have another game to play. So it will be up to me, us, and everybody to shake this one off and come in ready to play."
For the UNC veterans, it's not even a thought of letting it get into their heads that their careers at North Carolina---as well as the hopes and dreams of an entire season that UNC spent much of ranked No. 1 in the nation---could come to a crashing halt on Monday.
It's just another baseball game---the 63rd of the year.
"I don't look at it that way (that it could be my last game)," said Frank. "I'm not focused on that at all. I just want to come out here and try to win, try to get these guys ready and win."
"I'm not looking at it as my last game, because I don't believe it is," he added.