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January 25, 2013

Downplaying No. 1

North Carolina baseball got a solid endorsement prior to Friday's start of practices for the 2013 season, as Baseball America gave the Diamond Heels its preseason No. 1 ranking.

It's the kind of recognition that will get UNC plenty of attention in the coming weeks, but the folks perhaps least interested in talking about the No. 1 preseason ranking are the Tar Heel players and coaches themselves.

"It's another year. It's always an exciting time just getting ready," said head coach Mike Fox Friday afternoon at Boshamer Stadium. "Opening day is not that far away, whereas always in September and October, it's always a long way away. I think our players are just excited to get an opportunity to start the season."

When asked if he thought his team deserved the No. 1 preseason ranking, Fox said 'No,' adding a laugh.

"You know, it's a preseason poll. We all know what that means," Fox said.

"I would be kidding if you if I didn't say it's certainly an honor that people think he have a chance to be pretty good, but if I had my druthers, it wouldn't be (the case), because it (the No. 1 preseason ranking) comes with some very high expectations, and then you worry how your team is going to manage all those."

"It may be a little bit more difficult because there's only one way to go from one," Fox added. "And that's down. And that's probably going to happen because you're not going to win every game. But the expectations, we're fine with those. We just have to do what we need to do to hopefully live up to them."

"It's that end poll that's most important. The 'post'(season), not the 'pre'(season)."

Junior third baseman Colin Moran, UNC's offensive leader who is coming back after an injury-plagued sophomore season, is one of those players who is clearly trying to put the No. 1 ranking out of his thoughts.

"I just try to not pay attention to any of that, definitely put it in the back of your mind. Preseason stuff is nice, but really it's just time to go win some ballgames," Moran said. "I just think we've gotten used to (high expectations) over the past couple of years.'

Left-handed starting pitcher Kent Emanuel, poised to once again be the Friday 'stopper' at the top of UNC's deep and gifted rotation, speaks for the entire North Carolina squad by saying that after a long offseason he's just ready to take the field again and play someone else.

"I'm excited just to have another team in the other dugout. I'm sick of all these guys," Emanuel joked.

"We're excited. First team practice starts (Friday). We kind of know we're getting close. Unfortunately it's cold, but we know we're getting close (to the start of the season), and we're getting excited."

The Tar Heels are returning a solid nucleus of talent, including all three of its top hurlers from 2012 (Emanuel, Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson) and the majority of its starting position players from a season ago, including veterans throughout the outfield and infield.

"I think just the returning players that we have. We have two or three All-Americans coming back. Our pitching staff is phenomenal. It may be the best in the country in the preseason," said senior Chaz Frank, who projects as Carolina's starting center fielder heading into the season.

"We have a lot of proven guys on our team. We have a lot of young arms coming in that haven't really proven themselves, but they have the talent. So I think the pitching is the reason we're number one, and we also have some great leaders coming back, some experienced guys."

"Hopefully (all the veteran experience) comes out to help us. I know my freshman year we had a lot more experience than last year, and we ended up making it to Omaha (in 2011) and last year we didn't. So hopefully it does play a factor. I'm not sure how it will, but hopefully it's for the better," added Emanuel, who went 8-4 with a 1.96 ERA a year ago.

"I'm not exactly a talkative guy, but I think I can lead by example and set a good example," added Moran about being a veteran presence in the UNC clubhouse.

"Personal goals, they're always the same. Just try to lead us to Omaha and do whatever I can to get there. Junior year doesn't really change anything. Hopefully this year we can get back there (to the College World Series)."

This year's Tar Heel squad has a source of motivation that goes much deeper than trying to fulfill the prognostications of college baseball experts.

How last season ended---a highly-disappointing two-game sweep at the hands of St. John's at Boshamer Stadium in the Chapel Hill Regional of the NCAA playoffs---still sticks in the collective craw of this veteran UNC squad.

The Tar Heels hadn't lost a postseason series in Chapel Hill since the start of Carolina's recent runs of CWS appearances (five in six seasons from 2006 to 2011) before falling to St. John's last spring.

And while it's the type of thing you can't totally dwell on, avoiding a repeat of last year's Chapel Hill Regional is clearly one of this team's biggest long-term goals.

"I think it's there," said Coach Fox about the disappointment of last season and motivating this year's Diamond Heels. "It's kind of unspoken, but our players are all competitive, and they remember that feeling. It's not a good feeling to end your season, especially at home. That's kind of new for this group over the past few years."

"I don't know that we needed any extra motivation, but I think our players will hopefully not repeat that," Fox added.

"(We're thinking about last season's conclusion) a little. It's in the back of our minds I guess, but not too much. We're trying not to worry about that. We're just trying to win the day," Emanuel said.

"I think the good thing about getting knocked out early last year is we kind of realized it wasn't a given that we'd make it to Omaha. It was kind of a reality check that will make our team keep its heads down and just work."

One of the best ways in which the Tar Heels can potentially avoid the letdown of 2012 this season is by staying focused on the individual task at hand, which for UNC means a season-opening seven-game homestand against Seton Hall and Stony Brook (three games apiece) before welcoming St. John's back to the Bosh for a rematch of last year's postseason clash and a chance for some early redemption.

From there UNC will play a challenging series of three games to start the month of March against Rice, California, and Texas A&M at the Astros in Action Classic in Houston's Minute Maid Field.

"(The) Houston (event) is going to be a big test. Seton Hall is going to be a big test. Stony Brook is going to be a big test," said Coach Fox.

"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but I know our players are excited about that (trip to Texas) because not only is it really good teams, but it's a major league park and we're guaranteed that we'll get the games in (playing in a dome). That will be a fun trip."

Last year UNC went out to the West Coast for an early test and came back to Chapel Hill undefeated---a confidence-building run of four wins against quality opposition that kick-started an excellent regular season for the Tar Heels, culminating in an ACC Coastal Division title.

"That trip (to California) last year, we came back 4-0 and you could just tell there was just a shot of confidence throughout our whole team that, 'Hey, we may have a chance to be pretty good,'" said Fox.

And while playing well early will certainly keep the conversation churning as to whether or not Carolina is the nation's best college baseball team in 2013, Fox and his players will just be glad when they'll finally get the chance to prove they're worthy of the top spot instead of only answering questions about it.

"We've had great teams here in the past and they've never been ranked No. 1, so we're trying to hold those expectations and have a good start, and keep the young guys cool and stuff," said Frank.

"Definitely it's a great time right now getting ready for the season. We've got a lot of young guys so they're excited. We're going to try to prepare them for the big season ahead, especially with all the expectations, being No. 1 (preseason) and everything."

"Hopefully (Saturday) we'll open with our first scrimmage of the year. Hopefully we can get the snow and the sleet off. We'll do anything possible to get on the field. All the guys are really anxious to get on the field," Frank added.


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