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June 16, 2013UNC comes into today's rivalry showdown with N.C. State in Omaha at the College World Series refreshed and ready for battle after a marathon series of postseason wars with Florida Atlantic and South Carolina.
And while Carolina's path to T.D. Ameritrade Park Omaha might not have been as easy as some others joining them at this year's CWS, all that matters is that they're there.
"You just want to be one of the top eight. It doesn't really matter how you get there. At the end of the day, we're (there). So that's the most important thing," said UNC head coach Mike Fox. "I'm just happy that these 27 guys and all our support staff, the people that have been around our program (are in Omaha). That's the joy. That's the joy in going is everybody gets to experience it. This one is sweet. This one is very special."
The Tar Heels are throwing Kent Emanuel Sunday afternoon against N.C. State ace Carlos Rodon, and certainly a lot of eyes will be on the two lefties, one of which was drafted in the third round by the Houston Astros last week, and the other being discussed as a potential top ten pick in the 2014 MLB Draft.
After being forced into some late-inning relief duty in elimination games against FAU and South Carolina, Emanuel has gotten into a little more normal routine this week leading up to Sunday's appearance.
That also goes for UNC's other normal 'weekend' starters, Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson.
"Starting pitchers do like their routine," said UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes.
"You get into a regional like we did and you're in a dogfight, sometimes you get knocked out of that routine, and then you have to get back into that routine. So we feel really, really good."
"When you're Kent, coming off short rest you can't throw both games (relief in the Super Regional). But this week Kent will be able to throw a 'flat ground' on Friday, and maybe even a light bullpen (session) to lock in. And then Hobbs (Johnson) gets plenty of time, and so does Benton. So we can get back (into our routine)."
While the UNC starters weren't spectacular in the Regionals, forcing Carolina's bullpen and clutch hitting to save the day, Forbes is ready to see what they can do now that they've had a little rest and have had a little time to work out some kinks.
And don't forget that the last time Emanuel pitched on that mound in Omaha, he twirled a three-hit shutout masterpiece against Texas in the 2011 CWS.
"I trust our starters. Everybody goes through cold spells, but I think all of our guys are capable of going out there," he said. "Although they haven't been great maybe the last two weeks, they're the reason we're here."
"I mean, they're the reason our bullpen is able to come back. What Kent has done has been amazing. And then Moss for the most part."
The format in Omaha is also beneficial to lining up a pitching staff---especially if a team can find a way to win that first game and especially the second game.
"When you go to Omaha, you can have guys that can match up. You can have guys benefit from that extra rest. I've always thought the hardest thing to coach is a (NCAA) Regional, not even a Super Regional," said Forbes. "Now you have a little more time, because you're playing one game, and then you get a day (off). So you do get a little more time to coach them."
Considering that UNC was for a brief moment a single out from staying home and not even hosting a Super Regional, it hasn't been lost on Forbes and the rest of the Diamond Heels how fortunate they are to be in position to get into their routine again.
"You go from really thinking as a coach that we're not going---you give up a grand slam, and you give up a three-run home run (against FAU)---and then you kind of get new life. You can tell the guys coming in, It's almost kind of a relief just to win the Regional."
"The Super Regional is just a weekend series. We've done it all year. It was, it made it more special, because it was so hard. It wasn't so easy. And that's good when you're going (to Omaha)."
"This team has fought through some tough battles. It hasn't come easy. And it doesn't come easy being the No. 1 team in the nation. Everybody is going to give you their best shot, and it just shows you how hard it is to get to Omaha," added senior outfielder Chaz Frank.
One guy who is undoubtedly going to factor substantially into North Carolina's chances of winning the whole thing if they make a run over the next week is Trent Thornton.
The rookie fireballer has been absolutely superb down the stretch for UNC, picking up the wins in both triumphs over South Carolina in the Super Regional, and taking on numerous roles over the last month, including closing, situational relief, and long relief.
"You have to give credit to Trent Thornton. He pitched very well. And he's done that all year. It's really special to see something out of a kid like that, that's just a freshman," said Frank."He wants the ball. He wants the ball in a big-game situation. And we're confident in him."
Thornton, whose fastball has been touching the mid-90's in recent appearances, will likely see a bunch of action in Omaha, and before it's all said and done he just might even get a start out there.
After all, he can go as much as five or six innings if need be, which by a fourth or fifth game in Omaha is absolutely critical from a starter.
"Trent, we think he's been one of our best guys all year. We've brought him in games before and he's given us five or six innings," said Coach Fox.
And with a deep bullpen full of fresh arms including Chris McCue, Trevor Kelley, Reilly Hovis, Taylore Cherry, Tate Parrish, Chris Munnelly, and Mason McCullough---any one of whom can be relied upon to give the team an inning or to get one batter out---the Tar Heels have to be supremely confident that they're ready to make a serious run at this thing.
"You want your starters to give you five or six innings every single time, and if you can do that you're going to be pretty fresh at the end of the year. And that's pretty much where they are," said Coach Forbes.
Guys like Thornton, Kelley, Hovis, McCullough, and McCue may not have experience in Omaha as freshmen and sophomores, but the wars they've had to endure just in the last month in the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Regional and Super Regionals should have them plenty battle-tested for N.C. State and whoever else they might encounter.
"The guys that haven't been to Omaha, they know they've come back. They've been in games where we've had to scrap," said Forbes. "To do what we did against Florida Atlantic, and then fight through it (against South Carolina) and without our starting pitching going deep into the games. It's just obviously special."
"Going to Omaha anytime is extremely special any time because it's so hard to get here, but this is a special group."