Since 2006, when I fell in love with college baseball, the Carolina baseball team has broken my heart half a dozen different ways: E4, the O State Ballaz, the underdog, Mike Leake, a regional in Oklahoma, a slow fade. I’ve cried and I’ve raged and there are plenty of Post-It notes from shep. stuck to my wall reminding me, in her very true words, that my heart wouldn’t always hurt like it did.
But more than broken hearts, they have given me so many moments of incurable and unutterably joy: the 2006 Cal State Fullerton fiasco, Robert Woodard’s complete game gem at the CWS, Patrick Johnson’s five years later complete game gem at the CWS, every walk-off home run Chad Flack ever hit, “Are – you – kidding – me?”, a chance to see Matt Wieters when everyone was just getting to know who he was and Dustin Ackley for two years before any one did, so many beloved players now on MLB rosters, Kyle Shelton’s brain-rattling left field catch in ’08, watching them raise more and more money every single year for BaseBald, ECU’s 23 strikeouts in the 2009 Super, covering the outfield like a riding lawn mower, rally pants and victory laps, walk-off homers and doubles and singles but also walks and hit-by-pitches and once a balk, an understanding of why Omaha means so much in one word, lightning against the sky at the ‘Blatt, innumerable inside jokes mostly involving food products, and something to care about, something that belonged to just us when the rest of Chapel Hill remains a basketball town.
There has been so much joy.
At the start of the year, I didn’t care as deeply about this year’s team as I cared about some in the past, but over the season I came to love them: they were sweet-tempered and funny, they weathered the loss of their best hitter for a month and didn’t flinch (except for an odd Achilles’ heel against Miami). But they were young, they were so young in so many ways, starting untested sophomores and true freshmen and juniors who won’t be drafted and awkwardly built catchers. They had a handful of veterans with mettle — their glorious closer Michael Morin, lefty set-up man RC Orlan, fierce funny awkward catcher Jacob Stallings — but they were young.
They are young, and they are talented, and a huge core of this team will be back next season to try again. I am sad how it ended, but for once, not for me: only for them. This team was better than this regional showed. But I am proud of them, too, for being young and showing their fight and their strength and their mellow temper that could be as dangerous as a bull-headed, single-minded team. They will win again next year. Benton Moss may end up the best pitcher in the country. Kent Emmanuel will get run support and Colin Moran will stay healthy and Michael Russell will adjust to shortstop. I am nothing but proud of this team today.
I can’t even be angry at St. John’s, whose joy at pulling off this upset was so pure that it made me happy, even as I was sad. Congrats to the Johnnies, who deserve the hell out of their Super Regional. I hope Arizona kicks your asses.
And Heels? We’ll see you in February.
(Full set here.)