The Road to Omaha

The Road to Omaha

A deep fly ball, it has a chance to go over the fence. Center fielder Brandon Riley breaks back on it as the standing room only crowd at Boshamer stadium falls into a brief hush.

It’s caught. Riley, leaping to contort his body to just the right angle to make the play, hauls in the ball just short of the wall. A sea of light blue erupts into a roar in the stands as a blissful smile pinballs across each face on the diamond as the players rush in to celebrate.

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The Tar Heels are headed to Omaha.

Players storm to the center of the diamond where the battery of Josh Hiatt and Brandon Martorano are already firmly buried at the pit of a dog pile. Water bottles, towels, and any object within arm’s reach is being thrown into the air.

This celebration was a long time coming,  and well deserved for this team.

Euphoria ensued for a while following the game, as players and coaches embraced, finally letting their guard down — even it is for just a fleeting second on a season long scale — and enjoying this moment. 

Coach Mike Fox rushed to his wife for a long hug. The emotions welling in his face as he zigged from person to person, welcoming all with a warm embrace.

"This is what makes coaching special," Fox said after the game.

 North Carolina teammates and coaches embrace after the win on Sunday                                                Photo by Turner Walston

North Carolina teammates and coaches embrace after the win on Sunday                                                Photo by Turner Walston

Shortly after, Fox stepped into the press conference to talk about what his team had just accomplished, and the road left to travel. His demeanor relieved, but the whirl wind of emotions still overcoming him.

“Keep me from crying, alright? Don’t look at me,” Fox said turning to the players — Zack Gahagan, Kyle Datres, and Cody Roberts — around him at the podium.

Fox has been to the College World Series before but this one was different. Obviously the longtime coach in Chapel Hill was worn by the games of the weekend, but there was something visibly different about him today.

Instead of the stoic, seasoned look he usually puts on, Fox looked like a weight had been taken off his shoulders and replaced with glee.

He was joyful in the purest sense. His eyes welled up as he glanced at the boys in light blue beside him. He knew this team was different.

“This is a special group... One of the more special teams I’ve been able to coach here,“ Fox said.

Of course, this was the team with the last remaining members of the players that had gone through so much. The turmoil of an uneasy locker room in 2015 — a year they did not make the tournament — really caused some of the younger players, like Zack Gahagan, to help be the change they wanted to see in the clubhouse.

"It's a lot of character too, the guys Coach brings in, their all good kids, and we meshed well together." Gahagan said. 

"Our first two years we didn't have that..we wanted to change the culture, and we were able to do that."

The Tar Heels faced growing pains in 2016, before a devastating — and potentially humiliating  — loss in the first round a season ago.

The Davidson loss could’ve really broken some spirits, but Datres was quick to sum up the mentality regarding that topic.

“What happened last year?” Datres said.

It’s mindsets like this that embody this Carolina team. Full of grit, camaraderie, and the dream of bringing the title back to Chapel Hill.

These boys have dealt with all kinds of adversity, and have yet to break from it. They’ve kept on playing, no matter what happened.

"Never blamed, never wavered.... from the start this team had a lot of belief in themselves," Fox said.

Like Fox mentioned before, this team is different. They love being at the field, they enjoy each other’s company, and they don't rely on one person to carry a load.

"I think we have a different superstar every game, and that's why we've gotten to this point," Datres said.

Through a bond only forged through a ball, a diamond, and light blue, these boys have swept Chapel Hill off their feet.

The press conference is getting slow now, not too many questions left to ask. the looks on the faces of the men on the stage says all we need to know.

"If you guys have any more questions, you can make 'em fast," Datres says, hearing his teammates celebrate in the locker room. 

So let them celebrate, because they’re not done yet.

We’ve watched them as the started the season slow. We watched them as they rattled off an 18-game home winning streak- best in the country. And we will darn sure watch them next week as they go to work in the College World Series.

“I’m unbelievably happy for these kids, they’ll get to experience something that's going to be a lifetime memory for them,” Fox said.

See you in Omaha, Tar Heels. You’ve earned it.