Adversity-Filled Season Offers Lessons for Tar Heels

The 2021 campaign gave UNC something to build

In the days and weeks after being named North Carolina’s 25th head baseball coach last August, Scott Forbes heard from coaches all across the country, congratulating him on the opportunity he had long been waiting for.

All of them offered some sort of advice. But the most common refrain he heard was he will look back years from now and realize his first season as a head coach taught him more than any other.

Forbes recalled this after his 20th season on the UNC coaching staff came to an end Sunday with a 12-2 loss to UCLA in the Lubbock Regional. And while the lessons he learned over the last 10 months will become more apparent with time, he couldn’t help but recognize how grateful he was to learn them in a year in which COVID-19 could’ve very well taken that opportunity away.

“I would say the biggest word is thankfulness,” Forbes said. “Just being thankful to be able to lead the University of North Carolina's baseball program, but more, a group of guys that really bought into everything that we did to be able to make this season possible. But thankful to all the people who helped that people don't see. They see us and the players on the field, but so many people supported us, spent money on us, allowed us to be able to play this season. I think we’re going to look back and just realize how difficult that was.”

And how much the Tar Heels still achieved.

In a year that was trying for most everyone in college athletics, it was particularly demanding for teams forced to rely on youth and inexperience. Entering this season, 28 players on UNC’s roster had played in fewer than 20 games at the Division I level. That included 10 true freshmen, many of whom didn’t even play a high school game in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Among the many challenges this young group was forced to navigate was a schedule that ranked as the seventh-hardest in the country entering the NCAA Tournament. It was also dealt a considerable blow when Joey Lancellotti and Max Carlson – two of the team’s best pitchers – suffered season-ending elbow injuries in March and April, respectively.

Throw a pandemic in the mix, and the odds were stacked against a Tar Heel team that was picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division in the ACC preseason coaches poll and was not included in any preseason NCAA Tournament projections.

Coming off a 3-2 defeat to UNCG on May 11, UNC’s postseason hopes were in serious jeopardy. With the Tar Heels sitting at 21-22 – the latest in a season they’d been below .500 since finishing 29-31 in 1997 – Forbes challenged his players to play their final seven regular-season games as if they were their last. Buoyed by Austin Love and his two complete games, the team responded by sweeping Louisville and winning one of three games at Georgia Tech. It then beat N.C. State in the ACC Tournament to secure the program’s 33rd NCAA Tournament bid.

“I know what our goals are, and those are never going to change at UNC – and they shouldn’t change,” Forbes said. “But I preach positivity, I preach belief, staying with the process, telling the guys early we will have some adversity and we have to be able to handle it. I would’ve said at the beginning of the season, I wouldn’t have been satisfied with just making it into a regional …

“But I've been coaching awhile and know that when you lose two weekend starters that I thought would throw significant innings for us – there was a point there, I was like, ‘OK, we just have to find a way to get through this, bounce back and get into the postseason, because then it's a new season and anything can happen.’”

As the No. 3 seed in the Lubbock Regional, UNC rode Love to a 5-4 win over No. 2 seed UCLA, extending its streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with at least one win to 26. It then went toe-to-toe with No. 8 national seed Texas Tech – which, like UCLA, was considered a consensus top-5 team in the preseason – for seven innings before falling 7-2.

It was at that point, though, that the team’s lack of pitching depth became apparent.

With Carlson and Lancellotti sidelined and a few other pitchers unexpectedly struggling, several arms were given the opportunity over the course of the season to earn one of the rotation spots behind Love. None of them, however, ran with it. And with Love, Gage Gillian and Shawn Rapp unavailable for UNC's elimination game against UCLA, eight Tar Heel pitchers combined to allow 12 runs on 17 hits, putting the team in a hole it couldn’t dig out of.

For a UNC fan base only three years removed from watching the Tar Heels in the College World Series and two removed from seeing them win the ACC Tournament and nearly return to Omaha, the loss brought an end to a season that some viewed as a disappointment. But as was the case in 2010, when a relatively young and inexperienced UNC squad saw its season end in the Norman Regional, the Tar Heels’ time in Lubbock could prove invaluable.

“I felt like coming here was a really good experience for us and some of the younger guys,” said redshirt sophomore right fielder Caleb Roberts. “I’ll never forget playing here in Lubbock, and I feel like this will really help our program in the future.”

Brett Centracchio and Dallas Tessar are among the seven seniors who UNC will be without next season. It also figures to lose a few key players to the MLB Draft. Justice Thompson and Love – the Nos. 86 and 190 prospects in July’s draft, according to Baseball America – have most likely played their last games as Tar Heels, and it’ll be interesting to see if that’s also the case for a few other potential draftees in Lancellotti, Roberts, Danny Serretti and Angel Zarate.

Should any of Roberts, Serretti and Zarate return, they’ll be a part of what could be a very strong lineup. Johnny Castagnozzi, Tomas Frick, Mac Horvath and Colby Wilkerson each showed signs of promise as true freshmen, and Tyler Causey, Clemente Inclan, Max Riemer and Will Stewart are among several reserves who could work their way into a significant role.

On the mound, UNC will face the unenviable task of replacing Love, who fell just five strikeouts shy of breaking Andrew Miller’s single-season school record of 133, set in 2006, in 21 1/3 fewer innings. The Tar Heels will, however, bring back their four most-used pitchers in Gillian, Caden O’Brien, Nik Pry and Rapp. They’ll also return Carlson and potentially Lancellotti from injury, as well as Max Alba and Will Sandy – who can help take UNC’s staff to another level if they can harness their potential.

Despite such reasons for optimism in 2022, Forbes focused most of his attention Sunday on the 2021 Tar Heels – a team he’ll always remember fondly as his first.

“I’m proud of a group that believed in themselves,” he said. “So, I would just say thankfulness and proud would be the main two things. And I just took from it, ‘Hey, no matter what, you’re going to be dealt with some adversity. You just have to keep plugging.’”