Lucas: Super Memories
Players from the 2007 Carolina baseball team are now scattered across the country, but they unanimously had one response this week when asked about their super-regional matchup with South Carolina from that season:
"That was one of the most fun series I ever played in."
Until this weekend, when the Gamecocks return to Chapel Hill for the super-regional (game times are 1 p.m. on Friday, noon on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday), that 2007 meeting was the last clash between the two diamond rivals.
Looking at the pictures from Carolina's super-regional victory over South Carolina that season is like paging through a time capsule. There's Boshamer Stadium...with bleachers instead of chairback seats. There's Chad Holbrook...but he's in a Tar Heel uniform as an assistant coach instead of in Gamecocks garnet as the South Carolina head coach. Fans pack a grassy bank down the first-base line. The press box looks a little rickety.
It's almost like returning to your kindergarten class and discovering those desks weren't quite as giant as they once seemed.
Hosting NCAA Tournament games has become almost expected over the last half-decade. But in 2007, it was still a new experience, and South Carolina was the Darth Vader of Tar Heel baseball. Finally getting that program, that had done so much damage to Carolina in past seasons, to come to Chapel Hill felt like an important step.
The formerly primitive nature of Carolina's home facility--they simply didn't have the physical facilities to be an attractive host site--was part of the reason why they seemed to make constant early June pilgrimages to sweaty Columbia in the early 2000s. But the other reason was that South Carolina was (and is) a very good program, and they were simply better than the Tar Heels in most of those seasons. The Gamecocks eliminated Carolina in three straight seasons from 2002-04; each time, the games were played in Columbia.
Now, finally, they had to come north. It gave Boshamer a giddy and ominous feeling all at the same time.
Chad Flack's home run in 2006 in Tuscaloosa was euphoric. But the 2-1 series win over the Gamecocks was cathartic.
As usual, South Carolina was loaded. They arrived in Chapel Hill with the reputation and the stats of a big-hitting, power-laden squad. Even the Tar Heels stopped at marveled at some of the prodigious blasts--remember, this was in the pre-BBCOR bat era--the visitors hit during batting practice. This was simply a different kind of team than the ones Carolina faced in the ACC.
"All of their guys were trying to hit the ball over the fence," says Rob Wooten, who pitched in relief in every game of the series. "I know some of them personally now, and that's what they've told me they were trying to do. But it can get you in trouble as a pitcher if you're worried about giving up a home run. We went right after them."
Early on, that didn't appear to be a particularly sound strategy. South Carolina built a 6-0 lead after five and a half innings in game one. But like this year's team, the 2007 squad was accustomed to battling back. They trailed East Carolina 10-8 in the ninth inning of the Chapel Hill regional before staging a furious three-run rally (capped with a celebration so raucous that Wooten lost a tooth), then came back from a 5-4 ninth inning deficit against Western Carolina in the regional title game.
"We had the confidence of having been there and done that with some comebacks," says Flack, who had started that trend with an improbable ninth-inning walk-off home run against Alabama in the 2006 super-regional. "We were a veteran team that had some experience, and the coaching staff really trusted the veterans that we would stay in the game, whether there were a lot of outs left or just one out left."
The Tar Heels began to chip away in the bottom of the sixth, collecting three runs on a Flack double, a Seth Williams single and a Garrett Gore single. With the South Carolina lead suddenly halved, Mike Fox turned to his bullpen anchors--Wooten and fireballing closer Andrew Carignan.
That duo combined for 2.2 innings of scoreless relief, allowing the Carolina offense to crank out six runs in the bottom of the seventh and win a 9-6 decision.
Game two of the series was paused by rain and lightning with the Gamecocks holding an 8-5 lead. That left the Tar Heels in the unusual position of coming to the park on Sunday already trailing, with the prospect of having to play one game to continue their season immediately upon the conclusion of the previous day's game.
"The energy in and around Boshamer was a big help that weekend," Wooten says. "I remember pulling up to the stadium on Friday at 10 a.m. and there were already 1,000 people outside tailgating. That was the first time I had really experienced that at Boshamer."
Much like this weekend--the super-regional is sold out--tickets were at a premium in Chapel Hill. With Boshamer renovations scheduled to begin almost immediately upon the conclusion of the game, the final game of the super-regional would also mark the final game at "old" Boshamer.
Sunday's games were packed, and between the end of the previous night's resumption (South Carolina held on to win, 8-6, to tie the series) and the start of the deciding game, basketball coach Roy Williams addressed several members of the Tar Heels.
Forty-five minutes before the start of game three, he reflected on his experiences following Carolina to Omaha in 2006. "It's the most fun I've ever had at a sporting event," he told them. "What would you have said before the season if someone had told you that you could play one game to go to Omaha, and you'd get to play it at Boshamer Stadium?"
The players, who were gathered around the coach-turned-fan, just grinned.
"We knew what Omaha was like because of the previous year," Carignan says. "We were so excited to have the chance to try and get back there."
Initially, the prospects looked dim. South Carolina held a 4-1 lead after five innings, but then three Tar Heel runs in the top of the sixth tied the score.
"We had so much confidence," Carignan says, "and we felt like if we could just get Chad Flack to the plate, something good would happen."
Instead, something great happened. Tim Federowicz singled leading off the seventh, and with one out, Flack homered to left field, a blast that set off such a celebration that the old Boshamer press box could be felt to rumble a little.
"They threw me an outside pitch, probably a few inches off the place," Flack says. "I didn't like to go to right field with the outside pitch, so I pulled it and I got under it a little bit. I felt like this on every team I was with and especially that one: if I hit the home run, great. But if not, I knew someone else would. I feel like this year's team has that same aura about them."
Fox had turned to Carignan after a leadoff walk in the sixth. The righty proceeded to breeze through the heart of the Gamecock order and worked out of a jam in the seventh. He went through the meat of the big-hitting lineup again in the eighth, and then struck out the final two hitters of the game.
The last strikeout prompted a wild celebration on the Boshamer turf, including a perfect form tackle of Carignan by shortstop Josh Horton.
"That was one of the best outings of my baseball career," Carignan says. "I hadn't pitched the previous day, and basically there was no way I was coming out of that game."
Immediately following the game, several players, including Flack, were summoned to the postgame press conference. South Carolina's media obligations were held first, meaning the Tar Heels didn't finish until almost an hour after the last pitch had been thrown.
But when they returned to the Boshamer field, they found a strange scene: almost none of their teammates, family members or diehard fans had left. The previous year's super-regional victory had been in Tuscaloosa, and only a very few people got to experience it in person. This time, it felt like everyone associated with the program was on hand, and they didn't want to leave.
"I couldn't believe it, because everyone was still in uniform," Flack said. "We were all so close with each other and with our families, and everyone wanted to enjoy every second and be part of it."
Aware that the old stadium would be coming down shortly, some players and family members even autographed one of the old Boshamer columns as testament to the fact that they were there for one of the most important series in Carolina baseball history.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, almost everything changed after those two seasons. Boshamer Stadium has improved beyond what anyone on the field that night could ever have imagined. Carolina has been to Omaha five times in the past seven seasons. Multiple players from that program have started a Tar Heel pipeline to the pros.
"It all started with that 2006 class," says Carignan. "Guys like (Andrew) Miller and (Daniel) Bard, they were better than everyone else, and they could have acted like it. They could've been prima donnas. But when you have your best players acting like they are just like everyone else, the rest of the team falls in line. That set the tone for everything that came after them."
And started a path that will continue tomorrow at 1 p.m., weather permitting, with game one of the super-regional. The principals from 2007 will be watching wherever they can. Flack plans to be at Boshamer (but, sadly, will not be available to pinch-hit), Carignan will watch in Arizona, where he is going through injury rehab with the Oakland A's, and Wooten will be in Memphis, where his AAA Nashville Sounds have a game.
No matter where they'll be, all agree with Wooten.
"I wish I could talk to the current players," he says, "because I would tell them to soak it all in. This will be one of the most fun series they ever play in their entire careers."
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly.