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May 8, 2007Friday night, senior right-handed pitcher Robert Woodard will take the mound against Georgia Tech in search of redemption.
On the surface, such a statement sounds a bit odd. Woodard leads the Tar Heel weekend starters with a 7-2 record and a 2.82 earned run average. (Adam Warren, a midweek starter, is tops on the team with a 9-0 record and a 1.58 ERA.)
In Woodard's last outing, N.C. State hammered him and the Tar Heels 11-1. Carolina (38-10) bounced back to take the series by winning the second two games of the weekend, but his personal effort left Woodard wanting.
And what he wants is to get back on the strong track he has traveled throughout his career.
"It's been good," Woodard said. "I feel like for the most part I've been on my game every time out there. [Pitching coach Scott] Forbes has done a great job of coming at me with a game plan week by week. Overall, I'm pleased with how I've thrown. Obviously, I'm not pleased with my last start.
"It's going to happen in this game. You play as good as teams as you do."
UNC returned to action on Tuesday night with a 9-0 victory against Elon. The Tar Heels will play at East Carolina on Wednesday and then open a three-game home series against Georgia Tech at 7 p.m. on Friday.
Woodard will take the mound on Friday against the Yellow Jackets. What Woodard wants most of all is for the team to win. He's coming down the stretch of his career as a Tar Heel, and he would love to make another run the way the team did last year when it went to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series.
"Some people say each week is equally as important, but there is no question that the stretch we're in after exams are over is the most important time of the year," Woodard said.
Last year, the Tar Heels won the Coastal Division of the ACC during the regular season, but they lost in two games at the conference tournament. What happened after that proved to everyone in the program just what Carolina baseball can accomplish.
"The biggest thing is we showed what we're capable of doing," Woodard said. "When you work as hard as this team has and prepared as much as the coaching staff and team have, most of this group of guys had never been to a Super Regional before last year. We didn't really know exactly how we would fare there. We were able to hold our own down at Alabama. Then we went to Omaha, and we said we were going to play our game. We were able to do that.
"We know what we are capable of, and we expect to play at a high level every time the game starts."
Advancing to the collegiate level of the game has taught Woodard just how important it is to be prepared every time he takes the mound. Inconsistency is the enemy.
"Learning to be consistent is the toughest thing I've had to learn how to do," he says. "Day in and day out, bringing it to practice and bringing it to games, it's such a long season. It's a long school year. We get back from summer ball, where we played 55 or 60 summer games, and bang, you're in here running 20-yard shuttles and 50-yard dashes in 105-degree heat on turf.
"You have to learn how to pace yourself and make the most of every day down here and be consistent. Along with that, you cannot be satisfied from your great outings and not let yourself get too down through your bad outings. You're going to have your good days and bad. You have to learn from both of them."
Woodard will forever remember the 2006 trip to the CWS with mixed emotions. He pitched the finest game of any of Carolina's pitchers, shutting out Clemson on three hits. But then he could not hold a lead in the second of a three-game series for the national championship.
The Tar Heels got to within that half a game of the title before letting it get away.
"I was reading about an NBA basketball player who lost his college national championship," Woodard said. "Even after his NBA career, it stuck with him. It's going to stick with you for so long because you get so close and worked so hard to get there. It's something you think about almost on a daily basis, not so much in a negative way, but you think about it and use that to motivate yourself to bring it day in and day out."
He is certainly not ready to concede anything this year.
"I'm very anxious to get back to playing," Woodard said. "This group of guys is by far the deepest team I've ever been a part of. From a match-up stand point with our hitters, we have lefties and righties we can run at guys at any point in the game. We're very deep in the field. Our pitching staff, with the number of appearances that have been spread out compared to last year and the year before is really amazing.
"As far as our chances go, if we put the work in we have a great shot at controlling our destiny."