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May 13, 2008

Diplomas awarded, but sports continue

The second semester has ended, diplomas have been awarded, but intercollegiate athletics continue for some Carolina teams, especially those that have proven themselves among the nation's elite.

The baseball team will play Winthrop on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the final regular-season "home" game, home in quotes because the games are being played at the USA Baseball Training Complex in Cary. The game between the Tar Heels (42-9) and Eagles (22-30) will be broadcast on the Tar Heel Sports Network and ACC Select.

The big series will begin on Friday at Coral Gables, Fla., between the leader in the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Miami (41-6, 22-3 in the ACC), and the Tar Heels (20-6 in the conference), who are second in the same division.

In a testament to the level of baseball now being played in the ACC, these two also happen to be the No. 1- and 2-ranked teams in the national polls. So these three games are worthy of College World Series competition.

"It's going to be a tall order for us," UNC coach Mike Fox said.

The baseball team is not the only club still playing. Several Carolina teams are working their way through NCAA Tournament play.

The No. 13 Carolina softball team will host its first NCAA tournament regional this week. The Tar Heels, who earned their first 50-win season, will be the No. 2 seed in the regional and will play BYU (41-18) on Thursday at Anderson Stadium. In the other first-round match-up, the No. 15 overall seed and top seed in the regional, Georgia (43-22), will play fourth-seeded Campbell (41-23). The selection marks the sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament for the Tar Heels who are 6-12 in six previous appearances.

The men's tennis team has advanced to the NCAA Tournament's round of 16. The 12th-seeded Tar Heel will play fifth-seeded Mississippi on Friday in Tulsa, Okla.

Carolina defeated arch-rival Duke 4-2 at the indoor courts at UNC on Sunday to advance.

Regardless of the outcome, no one will be able to say this Carolina tennis team has not been tested at the highest level. UNC has played a grueling schedule, which has seen the Tar Heels face many of the top teams in the nation.

At the time UNC played them, these men's tennis teams were ranked as follows: No. 3 Ohio State, No. 5 Mississippi, No. 4 Baylor, No. 9 Notre Dame, No. 21 VCU, No. 35 Auburn, No. 29 Wake Forest, No. 7 Florida State, No. 1 Virginia and No. 25 Miami.

In one stretch during February, UNC played No. 41 Rice, Ohio State, Mississippi, Baylor, Notre Dame, VCU and Auburn in seven consecutive matches.

"It's helped us tremendously," Coach Sam Paul said. "That stretch right there set the tone for the whole year, and obviously the ACC is very tough, too, so we know we have seen the best teams in the country. There is not anything that is going to surprise us when we go out there. We've seen it all. There is not going to be a level of play that we haven't seen."

When UNC entered the match against No. 4 Baylor on Feb. 16, the Tar Heels had a 4-3 record and some shaky confidence. Starting with the Baylor Bears, though, UNC went 15-1 in its next 16 matches.

The sole loss came to top-ranked Virginia.

"That Baylor match was the turning point of our season," Paul said. "We gained a lot of confidence and went on a pretty good streak. If you have too tough a schedule," Paul said, "it could collapse you if you go on losing. It will pay dividends down the road. But if you have a lot of talent, and the guys stay committed to keep working, you can see it in a short amount of time."

The women's lacrosse team advanced in NCAA Tournament play as well. UNC upset fourth-seeded Virginia 11-7 on Sunday afternoon in the NCAA Tournament first round. Carolina improved to 13-6.

Carolina avenged a 16-5 loss to the Cavaliers in Charlottesville earlier this season. The Tar Heels will play No. 5-seeded Syracuse on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the NCAA quarterfinals at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.

The men's golf team was one of 27 teams to receive a bid to participate in the NCAA West Regional. The 54-hole event will be played Thursday-Saturday at Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Wash.

"They have hosted some prestigious events and we look forward to an exciting trip out west," Coach John Inman said.

As for the baseball team, no matter what happens at this point, the Tar Heels will be the host for a regional for the third consecutive season, and if they can advance, will almost certainly be the host for a super regional for the second consecutive season.


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