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May 29, 2007

Horton proves to be Tar Heel gem

Josh Horton is a bit of a hidden treasure at the University of North Carolina.

Many UNC fans probably could not tell you who Josh Horton is. Others may have heard the name, but could not recite just what he has accomplished in three seasons as a Carolina baseball player.

In the ACC Tournament championship game on Sunday, the left-handed hitting Horton drove two balls into the gap between the center and right fielders. One went for a double and almost made it for a triple. The other went for a triple and drove into the winning run in the eighth inning.

Horton was named the tournament's most valuable player after going 6-for-16 with four runs scored, three extra-base hits and two runs batted in during four games played.

Coach Mike Fox has enjoyed every moment he's had Horton, who is a former Orange High School player out of Hillsbrough.

"Josh came up big when he needed to," Fox said. "I'll take Josh Horton in the batters' box at anytime with the game on the line against anybody."

Horton is a two-time first-team All-ACC shortstop and was an All-American last season. He was just the second Tar Heel to win an Atlantic Coast Conference batting title since 1979, and he did it in a year in which four conference teams made the College World Series. He hit .395. He finished with 107 hits to rank second in the ACC, fifth nationally and second on the Tar Heels' single-season list at the time. He scored 62 runs and drove in 59. He had 17 doubles, one triple and seven home runs.

This year he is hitting .329 with eight home runs and 43 RBI.

"I'm getting pitched to a little bit different," Horton said. "I had some holes in my swing early in the year, and I had to work through some stuff. I feel terrific in the box. A lot of times last year, I just went up there and swung at everything.

"I ended up being able to get a couple of hits like that. This year I've been taking more walks and trying to be more patient, trying to get a better pitch to hit. Sometimes, I think me just going up there and swinging as hard as I can might be a better option."

Horton is one of the finest athletes on campus, which far more fans should come to understand in June when Major League Baseball holds its annual draft. Horton is likely to go reasonably early in the draft, given he can run, field, throw, hit and hit with power.

For now, you can be sure Horton's mind is solely on taking the Tar Heels as far as possible in the NCAA baseball tournament, which will begin this week. Top-seeded UNC (48-12) will play fourth-seeded Jacksonville (34-26) at 6 p.m. on Friday at Boshamer Stadium in the second game of the day in this sub-regional.

Second-seeded East Carolina (39-21) will play third-seeded Western Carolina (40-18) at 2 p.m. in the other game. The event will be played on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with Saturday and Sunday's game scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

After failing to win a game at the ACC Tournament the previous two seasons, Carolina bounced back from an opening loss this time to win the championship with three straight victories. A year ago, the Tar Heels overcome a poor performance in at the conference tournament to come within a half of a game of winning the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Many of the same players are still a part of this team, so the culmination of all the experiences should help Carolina as the Tar Heels try to earn consecutive trips to the CWS.

"You have to learn how to win big games," Horton said. "We have a couple of guys on the team that have learned, that had a part in winning some big games last year. Really, when it comes down to it, you've to play all nine innings. Nothing is given to you. Winning the ACC Tournament definitely helps with our confidence.

"But, then again, getting punched in the nose in Jacksonville [Fla.] last year kind of helped us out, too. Either way you look at it, you have to start over and go at it with a different mindset."

Starting with last year's sub-regional in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels have become a team that seems to find a way to generate timely hitting, a trait that works well with the strength of pitching UNC possesses.

"Hitting can be contagious; there is no question about that," Fox said. "It's something your team sort of feels. That happened to us last year in the regional. Jay Cox's home runs in the regional [against Maine] sort of jump-started us. The kids gained confidence, and we swung it pretty good the rest of the year."

The deeper this team has gotten into this season, the more the Tar Heels have repeated that theme. In doing so, Carolina has become one of the most well-balanced teams in the country.

UNC leads the ACC with 64 homes runs, with Clemson's 57 being the second best. Carolina is second in team batting average at .320, compared to Florida State's league-leading .355 average.

The most surprising statistic of all, however, is the Tar Heels are second in the conference in earned run average at 3.17, after losing two pitchers in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft a year ago.

In the victory against Wake Forest in the ACC title game and in Saturday's 5-0 shutout of Virginia, the Tar Heels combined to allow just two runs on nine hits in 18 innings. Freshman right-hander Alex White and red-shirt sophomore right-hander Luke Putkonen allowed one earned run in 13 2/3 innings in those final two games.

"We have a strong pitching staff again," Putkonen said. "We lost some guys last year, but we've had some guys fill their spots and we're ready to go."



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