‘It’s great to be back’

By Joe Foreman
Landmark Community Newspapers

OMAHA, Neb. – The North Carolina Tar Heels (50-14) are happy to be back in Omaha and excited about playing the first College World Series game ever in the $131-million TD Ameritrade Park Saturday afternoon against Vanderbilt.

“It’s feels really good. It’s great to be back,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said Friday following the Tar Heels’ workout in the new ballpark. “I think that’s the coolest part of being out here in 2011. I’ve told our players the distinction of being the first team to play here as far as the College World Series is concerned is something they’ll be able to tell their grandchildren about.”

The Tar Heels certainly aren’t strangers to the CWS, making their ninth appearance overall in Omaha and fifth in the past six years. Finishing the season in Omaha is the Tar Heels’ goal every season, but an accomplishment Fox and his players don’t take for granted.

“We’re trying to get here every year,” Fox said. “It’s not a given that you’re going to get here.”

Carolina junior catcher / first baseman Jacob Stallings echoed the thoughts of his coach Friday, noting that the Tar Heel players were motivated by not reaching the CWS in 2010.

“It’s motivation for us every year (to get to Omaha),” Stallings said. “ It’s a great accomplishment. The word I would use is ‘proud.’ This is a new group. Last year, we obviously had a disappointing season. With a lot of the same players, it obviously feels good. We’ve kind of set a new name for ourselves – a new identity.”

The players also like the idea of being in the first game at TD Ameritrade Park.

“It’s pretty cool. It’s such a beautiful stadium,” he said. “That’s going to be an experience of a lifetime for sure, one I can’t wait to do.”

Stallings is also excited about the opportunity to play Vanderbilt, a team he’s very familiar with because his dad, Kevin, is the Commodores’ head basketball coach . Stallings said he knew there was good chance the Tar Heels and Commodores would face one another in Omaha after NCAA Tournament pairings were announced on Memorial Day.

“When the bracket came out and I saw we were the three (seed) and they were the six, I knew we’d definitely see them in Omaha,” Stallings said. “I have mixed feelings. Obviously, I couldn’t be happier for them to be here. I know it meant a lot for them to be to get here.”

Stallings is friends with several of the Vanderbilt players, including Jason Esposito and Aaron Westlake.

“I’ve got a lot of really good friends on that team - a bunch of people,” Stallings said. “Every time I’m home (Nashville), I hit in the Vandy batting cages. They couldn’t be nicer to me. I have a tremendous amount of respect for them.”

Stallings said the Tar Heels are “relaxed” heading into CWS play and he expects both teams to play well Saturday afternoon.

“We’re just going to come out and take one pitch at a time and hopefully we’ll score more runs than they do,” he said.

Fox described Vanderbilt as a “scary good team,” noting that the Commodores have no glaring weaknesses.

“They’re about as balanced of club as you could see this year,” Fox said. “Obviously, their pitching has been solid all year, but they’ve got guys with power and guys that can run. They play good defense. They have the whole package.”

The Tar Heels and Commodores square off Saturday at 2 p.m. (EDT).

*****

Around The Horn

*** While Carolina is making its ninth appearance in the CWS, Vanderbilt is playing on college baseball’s grand stage for the first time.

*** Following Friday morning’s one-hour practice at TD Ameritrade Park, the Tar Heels took part in an autograph-signing session with fans.

*** With three teams – Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt – the Southeastern Conference has the most representatives in the College World Series field. The Atlantic Coast (North Carolina and Virginia) and Big 12 (Texas and Texas A&M) both have two teams in Omaha. The Pac 10 has one representative (California).

*** TD Ameritrade Park is located just a few blocks from Omaha’s downtown riverfront area. Flooding along the Missouri River is not expected to disrupt the College World Series, but has threatened one of the stadium’s parking lots in the days leading up to the CWS.

*** Carolina Coach Mike Fox said sometime during the Tar Heels’ stay in Omaha, he plans to return to historic Rosenblatt Stadium, the former site of the CWS.

“I want to go by there again to maybe take one last picture. I have some great memories there. I was hoping it’s still up.”

Fox coached the Tar Heels in their four previous CWS appearances and also played at Rosenblatt when Carolina qualified for the CWS in 1978.

*** Carolina’s Patrick Johnson (RH, 13-1, 2.27 ERA) and Vanderbilt’s Sonny Gray (RH, 12-3, 1.97 ERA) are the starting pitching probables for Saturday afternoon’s game.

*** The Vanderbilt-North Carolina winner will advance to a winner’s bracket game Monday night against the winner of Saturday night’s Texas-Florida matchup. The losers of Saturday’s games will meet in the first elimination game of the tournament Monday afternoon.

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