Tar Heels Show Sense of Urgency in 'Must-Win' Over Campbell
UNC enters the exam break with something to build on
From the moment he stepped into the North Carolina dugout Wednesday, Angel Zarate sensed it, a feeling unlike any he’s experienced during this up-and-down year.
Coming off five straight losses – the most recent a disheartening 19-5 defeat to Notre Dame – the Tar Heels found themselves below .500 for the first time since February 2018. Their NCAA Tournament hopes were also dwindling with only nine regular-season games remaining.
None of this was lost on Zarate or his teammates heading into Wednesday’s contest against a strong Campbell squad. Neither was the fact that they couldn’t afford a sixth consecutive loss. So, with their backs against the wall, they came out with a sense of urgency that Zarate said was palpable throughout their 9-3 win, the importance of which cannot be overstated.
“This game was a must-win, and the mentality was different,” Zarate said. “I think that’s why a lot of our at-bats, we were just so disciplined up there because we just didn’t want to throw any at-bats away. We just battled the whole game. … We had to win this game, and that’s how we’ve got to be the rest of the season.”
UNC’s mentality started to shift Monday, when Scott Forbes gathered his team for a meeting.
In the hours after the Notre Dame sweep, the first-year head coach said he spoke with Virginia’s Brian O’Connor, who told him he went as far as to tell his team – then 22-20 overall and 13-17 in the ACC – exactly what it needed to do to achieve its remaining goals. Forbes said he wasn’t quite as blunt with his players. He did not, however, shy away from telling them just how crucial the Campbell game was.
“I said, ‘Guys, we have to beat Campbell, no ifs, ands or buts,” he said. “If we lose that game going into exams, you can take it as pressure and you can say hey we want to play to have fun. But we need to win this game. It’s going to be a big game and it’s going to take everybody playing well to win it because they’re a good club, and we’re not going to win it if we don’t get over the loss against Notre Dame.’
“We’ve got some good older guys, and they did a good job of staying with our guys. They came out ready, and I could tell they were ready.”
In the two days before the Campbell game – which was postponed Tuesday due to inclement weather – Zarate said the Tar Heels switched from hitting eight pitches in each batting-practice round to only seeing four in an effort to make the hitters focus more intently on each pitch. That change paid dividends from the start Wednesday, as UNC put together a few good at-bats early and took a 1-0 lead on a second-inning RBI double by Johnny Castagnozzi.
The Tar Heels appeared poised to tack on another run an inning later, after consecutive one-out singles by Zarate and Danny Serretti. But the scoring chance was quickly thwarted when Serretti got caught in a rundown trying to advance to second and Zarate was subsequently thrown out at the plate. The Camels proceeded to seize a 2-1 lead in the following frame, which included a hit-by-pitch and a throwing error.
So many times throughout this season, UNC has tried to do too much when in similar situations, and that could’ve easily happened again with so much on the line. But the Tar Heels maintained their disciplined approach at the plate, matching their season high of eight walks, and scored eight runs in their final four at-bats.
On the mound, they turned to usual Friday night ace Austin Love to pitch the final four innings, a move that indicated just how much they desired a win. The right-hander ensured they got one, striking out seven batters and retiring the last 11 he faced to give UNC some momentum heading into the five-day final exam break.
Since the season started, Forbes has said he believes every ACC team that finishes .500 or better in league play will likely make the NCAA Tournament. At 21-21 overall and 14-16 in the ACC, the Tar Heels are likely still on the outside looking in. But there’s still time to change that.
“I’m happy with where we are considering we just lost five in a row,” he said. “A lot of times this time of the year, if you lose five in a row you’re done; you don’t have much of a chance to recover. But because everybody has beat up on everybody, anything can happen, not just to finish the season but even in the ACC Tournament.
“Virginia in ’15 was 12-15 (in the ACC) and came in here and swept us. And then they get into the regional and somehow they win the national championship. I’ve just gotta keep our guys believing, and you’ve gotta keep them positive because it’s a hard game.”
And it’s that much harder this season.
On top of playing the fifth-hardest schedule in the country, according to WarrenNolan.com, UNC hasn’t played more than seven consecutive home games all season. In fact, the Tar Heels are the only ACC team that hasn’t played back-to-back home series during league play – nor will they, as next week’s home series against Louisville is followed by a trip to Georgia Tech.
Although he refused to use this unusual schedule as an excuse, Forbes admitted that he’s felt the effects of not having a homestand of more than five games since February. He hopes his players don’t feel the same, but many surely do. That’s not even taking into account all the other obstacles they’ve faced during a season and school year disrupted by COVID-19.
For those reasons, Forbes said the exam break is a welcome respite for his team.
“I think our guys need it,” he said. “And the fact that we get to stay at home, that’s what I’m excited about. I knew if we could get this win against Campbell, we’ve got a home game Tuesday (against UNCG) and a weekend series, so it will be good just to have that home stretch. And we only have three more road games. That’s exciting, and I think it will help our guys recover.”
Perhaps no one on the roster will benefit more from the layoff than the freshmen, especially Tomas Frick, who has started 38 of UNC’s 42 games at catcher.
Serretti said recently on the “Bosh to the Bigs” podcast that he wasn’t prepared as a freshman for how physically demanding the season is. The current freshman are surely coming to a similar realization right about now, if they haven’t already, considering they’re also at the disadvantage of having not played high school ball last season.
“It’s definitely for the freshman class a newer experience,” said Mac Horvath, who, after a slow start to his career, has hit safely in six of the last seven games, a stretch that includes his first four extra-base hits (three doubles and a home run).
“You’re playing a lot more games, and it kind of takes a toll on your body. We’ve really got to make sure we’re hydrating and stretching and staying on top of all those things. Obviously, the break is nice, but at the end of the day, we just want to get better every day and keep striving toward our end goal here.”
For as encouraging as their response to their recent skid was, the Tar Heels know it won’t mean anything if they can’t maintain the same sense of urgency.
“If we can all piece it together, then we can really finish out strong,” Zarate said. “These next two days (Thursday and Friday), we’re still going to try to get better because we agree as a team that we have yet to play our best baseball. We’ve just got to keep working hard to get better.”