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May 29, 2012
Fresh faces fit in
Right-handed pitcher Benton Moss has been a big part of what has made North Carolina so successful in baseball this season.
He is 6-2 in 16 appearances and 15 starts as the Saturday pitcher. A 6-foot-2 freshman from Rocky Mount, he follows sophomore star Kent Emanuel each weekend.
The NCAA baseball tournament begins on Friday, and Carolina is hosting the Chapel Hill regional.
East Carolina (35-22-1) is the second seed. The Pirates will play No. 3-seed St. John's (37-21) in the first game on Friday at 1 p.m.
Top-seeded Carolina will play Ivy League champion Cornell (31-15-1) at 6 p.m. on Friday.
Moss epitomizes a young, talented pitching staff that has become toughened and ready throughout a rugged schedule. Pitching on Saturdays when your team is trying to win an ACC weekend series is not an easy chore, particularly not for a kid standing on the mound in college for the first time.
On Saturday in the ACC Tournament, Moss went head-to-head with the best pitcher in the league and possibly the country in N.C. State left-hander Carlos Rodon, who was nothing short of phenomenal by throwing 9 scoreless innings while allowing just four hits and striking out 12 Tar Heels.
The good news for Carolina is Moss matched him pitch-for-pitch while pitching coach Scott Forbes let him stay in the game. Forbes wanted to get some other pitchers time, and he did. Amazingly, the Tar Heels were the ones who finished the game with a shutout, 14 innings, no runs.
Moss did his part with 10,000 people in the stands, many of them cheering for the Wolfpack.
He held up, though.
"When I came here [to start the season], I was nervous, a typical freshmen out there," Moss said. "But [Saturday] in front of 10,000 people, it felt like there was nobody there.
"It was [catcher Jacob Stallings] and I," Moss said. "So I feel I've gotten used to the crowds. It was a fun atmosphere. I'm looking forward to getting in front of some more crowds like that."
This is part of the progression of freshmen who make it at this level. Baseball is a hard game to play. Moving from high school to college requires a whole new mentality and level of maturity that some kids just cannot grasp.
Moss, along with fellow freshmen Michael Russell, Mike Zolk, Adam Griffin, Shell McCain, Grayson Atwood and Chris McCue, have all made varying degrees of contributions to the success of this team.
Coach Mike Fox has a simple philosophy with the newcomers each year. Get onboard or hit the road.
"The ones who did not buy in are not here," Fox said. "That's pretty easy. We brought in a large freshmen class. Some have been major contributors for us. But it's taken awhile.
"These kids are not programmed to get it in high school and summer ball. They're programmed to showcase their skill and try to get drafted and try to make this all-state team or that all-state team."
Then they arrive at UNC, go through fall ball and enter the world of big-time college baseball in the February and March.
"All of sudden, it's just about winning," Fox said. "It's just about winning and doing your part. You have to have guys in the clubhouse who help you with that and reinforce all that.
"They are the ones who have to remind the kids that 'this is selection day, and you're about to see your name up there. This is what we talked about from day one.'"
Fox said he really loves the young guys.
"It's a process with freshmen," Fox said. "It's the most fun part of coaching and the most challenging part of coaching. It's the most satisfying part of coaching, to try to take young kids, mould them and mature them to not only being good players but be good teammates and be team-oriented.
"That has happened over the course of the years for us, and it's a credit to the players who have passed that on," Fox said. "We've had the Stallings and the [Michael] Morins pass that along."
Because UNC has gone to the College World Series five of the past six seasons, the older guys have experienced Omaha, Neb., and the atmosphere that surrounds the event.
This is new and exciting for these freshmen. Perhaps even a little awing if they were to be honest about it.
Moss said getting past the second semester of one's freshmen year helps a great deal. He said it has played into how well the entire team is performing.
"I swear, I really think it is post-academic play," Moss said. "We're are just eating, sleeping and breathing baseball. There is no stress in terms of homework, staying up late doing extra stuff.
"You just come in, get your meal money, get something good to eat, come back, practice, hang out, do the same thing over and over and over again."
In other words, become a true boy of summer.