It’s nice to get out to a hot start. In each of the past two seasons, the North Carolina baseball team has done just that, earning a slew of wins in its early non-conference slate and gaining momentum before ACC play.
However, the 2018 Diamond Heels dropped each of their first two home games this week — 5-4 to UNC-Wilmington on Tuesday and 5-2 at the hands of No. 21 Saint John’s on Wednesday — to drop to 2-3 overall.
This may be alarming start to a team ranked No. 6 nationally, but for head coach Mike Fox, it’s all part of the process.
“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want,” Fox said after Wednesday’s loss.
UNC has gotten tons of that. From newcomers getting their first sniff of college ball, junior college players acclimating to Division I play and the upperclassmen settling in as mentors, the start to the season has been a vital learning process for the Tar Heels.
Kyle Datres has been one the key performers for UNC early in the season, riding a five-game hitting streak out of the second spot in the batting order. He's been on some good teams in his time at UNC — he led the 2017 team in RBIs with 51 — and he understands that this early season lull does not define the team.
Datres still remembers his freshman year, when UNC started the year 18-2 before missing the tournament.
“Look where that got us,” he said.
Sure, there is a lot left to be desired after losing three of their first five games this season, but the Tar Heels have a lot of season ahead, and there's signs of a good future just around the corner.
Freshman pitcher Joey Lancellotti has been one of the key newcomers. There is a buzz around the coaching staff that Lancellotti is a “dude” — a high-upside talent who will eventually be a great player — and his performance has shown his potential. Lancellotti had made three appearances this year, going 4.1 innings and striking out five. His early numbers indicate that he could turn out to be a critical piece to this Tar Heel pitching staff in just his first year of college ball.
In addition to the strength of the youth of this year's team, the leadership of the seniors through the early struggles has shown up in big way.
A prime example of this came on Tuesday. Rodney Hutchison Jr., a junior right-hander, struggled in his appearance and let his emotions get the best of him as he was taken out of the game for Lancellotti. Hutchison didn't do anything too extreme — just body language that the UNC coaching staff deemed not up to Tar Heel standards.
Fox spoke with Hutchison with the intent to ask him about his actions later on, but it turned out the upperclassman had already handled the situation by taking Lancellotti out to dinner on Tuesday evening after the game.
With leadership like that paving the way for the younger players to find their footing, this UNC team will be just fine. The beginning of the season can act as a bit of a buffer area, before the real meaningful games start in ACC play in March.
“We swept Oklahoma State last year and they ended up in the College World Series," Fox said. "We swept Kentucky and they ended up hosting a super regional."
It's positive that the team appreciates the exposure and experience, while not letting the losses get into their head. As long as the Tar Heels can keep that in mind, they’ll be just fine come June.