Tar Heels Aim to Stay at the Top

Veteran lineup, youthful pitching could be right mix for Carolina

Coach Mike Fox

Coach Mike Fox

Jan. 22, 2007

By Jean Neuberger
Special to CSTV.com

Last season, North Carolina was oh so close.

Led by the All-American pitching duo of Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard, the Tar Heels reached the championship of the College World Series, only to see their dreams dashed by Oregon State.

Gone are Miller and Bard, but most of the day-to-day starters return from last year, creating a dangerous hitting squad that will keep ACC pitchers up at night.

"We're real excited about this season," said Tar Heel Coach Mike Fox. "We bring a lot of experience back from last year's team, and we've got a really good freshman class coming in. With those players, and a great nucleus returning, we're really looking forward to this season."

The Tar Heels will turn to some new arms this season, but have a reliable starter in senior Robert Woodard. The 6-foot-2 right-hander was 7-1 last year with a 3.43 ERA in 17 starts.

"You can't replace an Andrew Miller," said Fox. "He's a very special player; maybe a once in a lifetime kind of player. We hope not, but he was that type of player. And Daniel Bard, Jonathan Hovis...I have the same sentiments about those guys too. But with Robert, we have a solid, veteran Friday starter. We're going to have to use a lot of different arms this year."

And one of those arms appears to be RHP Luke Putkonen. The 6-foot-6 sophomore was 6-0 with a 3.08 ERA last year, starting the majority of mid-week games for the Tar Heels. And although Putkonen will start more weekend games for North Carolina, Fox stressed the importance of mid-week pitching.

"With the NCAA pushing the baseball dates, there is more uniformity among the teams, but there is also a new impact on mid-week games, "said Fox. "We'll be playing two games in between weekend series' a lot more, so we'll need a fourth and fifth starter where you didn't need one as much in years before.

"Luke, as well as the others, has to step up this year," Fox added. "We have to show consistency in our pitching staff. Hopefully, we'll surprise a lot of people this year with our pitching."

The strength of North Carolina this year rests on the infield tandem of juniors Josh Horton and Chad Flack, who were both awarded preseason All-American honors. Horton, a shortstop, led the team in hitting with a .395 average, as well as having a .455 on-base percentage. Flack returns from a successful season in which he batted .384 with 13 home runs and 68 RBIs. Flack also led the team with an impressive .993 fielding percentage.

However, he'll move from his regular first base position this season.

"We're going to move Chad to third base this year," said Fox. "We think he'll be able to provide some stability over there, and we'll be very strong on the left side of the infield with Chad and Josh out there. They'll both hit in the middle of the order, and hopefully be able to jumpstart our run production."

And run production will be vital in conference play, as the ACC has shown itself to be one of the toughest conferences in baseball.

"Our conference has been really good," said Fox. "We put four teams in Omaha last year, and that got us a lot more recognition, but I think the programs here have always been good. We open up conference play with Miami (FL) and Virginia, which are two of the top programs not only in the ACC but in the country. You have to be careful in scheduling your non-conference opponents, and make sure you don't over-schedule."

Don't be fooled, however. The Tar Heels will take on some strong non-conference foes, including regional rivalries with East Carolina, Winthrop, and Coastal Carolina. And the Tar Heels will do it as ground breaks for a $15.3 million expansion of Boshamer Stadium, giving UNC one of the nicer facilities in the country and symbolizing the increasing popularity of the sport in Chapel Hill.

"With so many good high school programs in the Carolinas, the quality of baseball in this area is really good," Fox said. "And we're excited about the expansion. We'll break ground on June 15, and we'll double the size of the stadium. We'll have six suites and 4,000 chairback seats when we're finished."

Despite being a win away from their first College World Series title, talk of Omaha is rarely mentioned in Chapel Hill.

"We really haven't talked much about Omaha," said Fox. "Having been there, and having been so close to winning, it's a little different feeling. We went through our fall the way we always have, and the kids were really enthusiastic. You don't have to talk to them much about it...it's a given that everyone wants to go back."

Will Fox bring it up more during the season?

"You don't want to put much emphasis on it," Fox said. "There is some luck to all of it, so you don't want to emphasize it all season. We enjoyed the journey last year, and we want these guys to enjoy it again this season. If we focus on Omaha too much, we'll lose the fun of going out there to play every time."

And if things fall as planned for Fox, North Carolina will have a lot of fun on their way back to Omaha.

This article is compliments of CSTV.com's 2007 Baseball Preview.

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