This is it. For Zack Gahagan and Brett Daniels, this is the last ride in Carolina Blue.
These two have been through it all. The turmoil of 2015, to the growing pains of 2016, blossoming into the rise, and ultimately the fall, of 2017, leading up to now. The culmination of all their hard work.
They’ve worked for this for four years, but it was not easy.
The year prior their arrival in 2015, they were committing to a national powerhouse. UNC had reached the College World Series six of the last nine seasons, and even in a down year in 2014, they made the NCAA tournament with a 35-27 record.
Even with a subpar tournament finish in 2014, there was a heap of high hopes moving into 2015.
All-American caliber outfielder Skye Bolt was coming back for his junior year, along with a slew of talented incoming freshman. This was going to be a bounce back year for UNC. Baseball America ranked them the No. 17 team in the nation that preseason.
Everyone believed this Tar Heel team would be a good one.
Some tumultuous team chemistry issues, coupled with a youth heavy team caused UNC to falter. Fast-forward to late May, and the 34-24 Tar Heels don’t hear their name called on selection day.
For the freshmen on the team, this was tough. The culture in the locker room was rocky, and the older members of the team weren't doing much to fix it. The younger players were forced to sit back, and wait for a time when they could right the ship.
2016 was a new dawn. The select few that harmed the team’s ability to mesh were gone. Everyone returning was a year older. Hype was rising around the program for a huge bounce back season.
But again the Tar Heels fell, hard. They failed to make the ACC and NCAA tournaments, putting a lot of pressure on the program.
But the culture had changed. Friendships were blooming, and the aura around UNC baseball was brightening.
Sure, those first two years were tough. Coming into what seemed to be a gold mine, and finding no more nuggets left. This was a rebuild of sorts for the program, solidly built around that class of 2014.
With all eyes on UNC after two down years, 2017 held huge significance for the program.
And with the pressure on, the boys came through. Spearheaded by the recruiting class of 2014, UNC steamrolled through the ACC and into the regionals as a national seed.
The team was on cloud nine. Even with a loss in the ACC tournament championship, UNC was awarded the No. 2 overall seed and a cakewalk into the super regionals.
Or so it seemed.
Like a scattered thunderstorm in mid-July, the Tar Heels were blindsided by a determined Davidson Wildcat team, and saw their season end without even reaching the super regionals.
But the boys carried on.
Because of injuries, MLB draft, or a plethora of other reasons, the recruiting class of 2014 found itself with only two seniors — with some considered red-shirt juniors (thus giving them a chance to return) coming into 2018 season — Brett Daniels, and Zack Gahagan. These two had weathered the mightiest of storms, and now found themselves the leaders of a young clubhouse.
And anyone who tells you they didn’t do one heck of a job would be lying. These boys have been brilliant.
As underclassmen in 2015 it would have been easy to just lie down, and join in with the poor locker room culture some of the upperclassmen with radiating.
But they didn’t.
It would have been simple to give up after a painful 2016. A season that started out 20-4, only to fly too close to the sun and have it all melt away without a tournament berth to show for it.
But they got their wings back on and tried to fly again.
They soared this time through the 2017 season. The Swiss army knife, Gahagan and electric reliever, Daniels, had changed the locker room atmosphere, produced camaraderie, and brought the winning culture back to Boshamer stadium.
So what if they had a bump in the 2017 postseason? These boys were the wind behind the sails of Carolina baseball.
So when you’re watching Saturday, and see Gahagan and Daniels on the diamond, stop and appreciate what they’ve done for the program. They carried the weight that others put on them, and still were able to carry it onward, ultimately paving the way for a new era of UNC baseball.
Now don’t get me wrong, there were others to carry this torch. Logan Warmoth, JB Bukauskas, Hansen Butler, and Jason Morgan, just to name a few. Warmoth and JB left for the MLB, and Butler and Morgan have been battling injuries. Sure, the latter duo may return next season, but for Gahagan and Daniels, however Omaha ends up, it will be their last game in Carolina Blue.
On field performance, these men deserve all the support in the world, but what they’ve given the program off the field is priceless.
Gahagan played nearly every position on the diamond without the slightest complaint. His transition to second base has been as smooth as footwork is when fielding a ground ball. His presence in the locker room, mentoring younger players and cheering on his teammates kept morale high and camaraderie even higher.
Daniels has started, relieved, closed, you name it. His ability to pitch at any time gave the Tar Heels a lifeline in any situation. He was always available. His selfless mentality has been a symbol of the UNC turnaround.
So cheer them on this weekend, and appreciate everything they’ve done for the program. Because if you ask me, Zack Gahagan and Brett Daniels… they’re Tar Heels, in every sense.