By R.L. Bynum

As strange as it will be to look over in North Carolina’s dugout and not see Mike Fox after 22 seasons, don’t expect many other differences in the baseball program under first-year head coach Scott Forbes.

After 19 seasons on Fox’s staff, not much will change, including the high expectations Forbes has for the Tar Heels, who he helped win three ACC titles and make seven College World Series appearances.

Scott Forbes

“I’ve been here a long time and it really hasn’t been that much different except for managing those types of things that a head coach would have to manage,” Forbes said. “The transition has been great and our players have been phenomenal.”

With many of the same assistant coaches working with him again this season, it hasn’t felt that much different for Forbes other than his larger role.

“My emotions really aren’t any different,” said Forbes, who was UNC’s pitching coach from 2006 to 2016 before shifting his coaching duties the last few seasons. “I would say the most emotional side probably will be when the first pitch is thrown, when it really hits me that I’m the head coach because I still don’t think at times it has. I’m sure it will and that’ll be a very humble reminder how lucky I am. The opportunity doesn’t come to many people to be a head coach at a place like this.”

Unfortunately, one disruptive factor that hasn’t changed since the 2020 season was cut short after a 12–7 start on March 11 is the pandemic. UNC was supposed to open with a three-game home series starting Friday against Kentucky. But COVID-19 issues in the Wildcats’ program forced the series to be canceled. The Tar Heels found a replacement opponent for that series and will play host to James Madison at 3 p.m. Friday (ACC Network), 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.

Forbes isn’t concerned with either preseason national rankings that don’t include UNC or a prediction that the Tar Heels will finish fifth in the ACC Coastal Division a year after being picked second. He remembers UNC winning 51 games and making it to Omaha in 2011 after being unranked in the preseason polls.

“Our expectations at UNC are always the same, no matter what preseason rankings are. Our expectations are to make it to the College World Series and try to win it.”

First-year North Carolina baseball coach Scott Forbes

“As a coach and as a team, you have an idea of what you think you might have,” Forbes said. “I think that’s one thing we’re looking forward to this year, to just say, ‘OK, well, not many people think we’re very good. So, we just have to see if we can prove them wrong from game one to finish.’ Our expectations at UNC are always the same, no matter what preseason rankings are. Our expectations are to make it to the College World Series and try to win it.”

Although UNC has lost Kentucky as an opponent, the Tar Heels’ schedule is rated one of the top five hardest in the country.

Forbes welcomes 20 true freshmen, including some who didn’t play a high school game last season because of the pandemic. In addition, there are a pair of graduate transfers — outfielder Max Troiani from Division II Bentley University and outfielder/first baseman Brett Centracchio from Davidson.

“We hit home runs on both of them,” Forbes said. “Phenomenal kids. Really don’t have to say much to them. They run their own engine. Both of them are going to have huge impacts for us.”

Centracchio was on the Wildcats team that upset UNC in NCAA regional play in 2017, going 3 for 4 as a DH in their clinching victory.

Brett Centracchio

“I always bust his chops about that,” Forbes said. “But he’s got a lot of experience and that’s going to help us.”

UNC lost first baseman Aaron Sabato (.292, 7 home runs, 18 RBI in 19 games), who was picked 27th overall by the Minnesota Twins, and center fielder Dylan Harris (.274, 5 home runs, 11 RBI in 19 games). But the Tar Heels return the entire pitching staff that is bolstered by freshmen. 

The rejiggered pitching staff may be the Tar Heels’ strength.

Redshirt sophomore right-hander Austin Love moves from closer to No. 1 starter. Junior right-hander Joey Lancellotti returns to his 2019 closer role, at least at the beginning of the season, after starting four games last season. Lancellotti, who is No. 121 on Baseball America’s list of top 150 college players, had hip-labrum surgery in the fall and isn’t quite ready to start.

Redshirt sophomore right-hander Austin Love moves from the bullpen last season to the ace of UNC’s rotation this season

Freshman 6–1 right-hander Max Carlson will be the Saturday starter. Right-hander Max Alba, a 6–5 redshirt freshman who missed the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and appeared in five games last season, will start Sundays.

Max Carlson

“I’m really excited about some guys who literally haven’t pitched much at all, who have a chance to have some breakout ability for us,” Forbes said. “And then, positionally, because of our depth on the outfield just because of the recruiting class. And that allows us to mix and match hopefully like we did in 2018, which was one of our strengths, with matching up with right-handed pitchers, left-handed pitchers. So, we feel good about that, having speed throughout the lineup.”

Max Alba

Being the ace has always been a goal for Love, who is in his third year in the program after redshirting in 2018. He led the team in appearances (36), ERA (3.09), wins (8) and saves (5) in 2019 and had 14 strikeouts in 14⅔ relief innings last season.

“I’ve always wanted to start,” said Love, who started in high school and in the Cape Cod League. “You come to Carolina, you want to be the Friday guy, that’s what everybody dreams of. At the Cape, I started five games up there. I have a little bit of experience, I think I’ll be fine with it.

“I’m gonna just try and attack more. More strikes, just try and get guys out instead of striking them out more out of the bullpen. There’s guys on base, so you’re more worried about not letting them score than just getting them out.”

Redshirt sophomore shortstop Danny Serretti stayed sharp in the offseason by getting at-bats against some major-league pitchers.

One of the leaders in UNC’s lineup will be redshirt sophomore shortstop Danny Serretti. He hit .299 and was a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American in 2019, and hit .250 last year after opening the season with a six-game hitting streak.

Serretti, No. 142 on Baseball America’s Top 150 list, was able to get at-bats once a week in the offseason. He got about 70 total at-bats against major-league pitchers, such as Rick Porcello and Jeurys Familia, to try to stay sharp in the offseason.

“I learned a lot,” Serretti said. “I did well, ended up getting a few hits, which is kind of cool. I kind of just learned that it is still just a guy out there, just throwing a baseball. Nothing really changes.”

Now, the Tar Heels can only wait and hope that they get a replacement opponent for this weekend. If not, they’re scheduled to open the season with a three-game home series Feb. 26–28 against Virginia, which is picked second in the Coastal Division.

UNC baseball schedule

Friday3 p.m. (ACC Network)HomeJames Madison
Saturday2 p.m.HomeJames Madison
Sunday1 p.m.HomeJames Madison
Feb. 26 (Friday)3 p.m.HomeVirginia
Feb. 27 (Saturday)2 p.m.HomeVirginia
Feb. 28 (Sunday)1 p.m.HomeVirginia
March 9 (Tuesday)3 p.m.HomeLiberty
March 12 (Friday)6 p.m.HomeClemson
March 13 (Saturday)2 p.m.HomeClemson
March 14 (Sunday)1 p.m.HomeClemson
March 16 (Tuesday)4 p.m.AwayLiberty
March 19 (Friday)4 p.m.AwayBoston College
March 20 (Saturday)3 p.m.AwayBoston College
March 21 (Sunday)1 p.m.AwayBoston College
March 23 (Tuesday)6 p.m.HomeEast Carolina
March 26 (Friday)6 p.m.HomeN.C. State
March 27 (Saturday)2 p.m.HomeN.C. State
March 28 (Sunday)1 p.m.HomeN.C. State
March 30 (Tuesday)6:30 p.m.AwayEast Carolina
April 2 (Friday)6 p.m.AwayFlorida State
April 3 (Saturday)2 p.m.AwayFlorida State
April 4 (Sunday)1 p.m.AwayFlorida State
April 6 (Tuesday)7 p.m.TBASouth Carolina
April 9 (Friday)6 p.m.HomeDuke
April 10 (Saturday)2 p.m.HomeDuke
April 11 (Sunday)1 p.m.HomeDuke
April 13 (Tuesday)6 p.m.HomeCharlotte
April 16 (Friday)6 p.m.AwayPittsburgh
April 17 (Saturday)3 p.m.AwayPittsburgh
April 18 (Sunday)1 p.m.AwayPittsburgh
April 20 (Tuesday)6 p.m.HomeCoastal Carolina
April 23 (Friday)6 p.m.HomeMiami
April 24 (Saturday)2 p.m.HomeMiami
April 25 (Sunday)12 p.m.HomeMiami
April 27 (Tuesday)6 p.m.HomeGardner-Webb
April 30 (Friday)TBAAwayNotre Dame
May 1 (Saturday)TBAAwayNotre Dame
May 2 (Sunday)TBAAwayNotre Dame
May 4 (Tuesday)6 p.m.HomeCampbell
May 11 (Tuesday)7 p.m.HomeUNCG
May 14 (Friday)6 p.m.HomeLouisville
May 15 (Saturday)2 p.m.HomeLouisville
May 16 (Sunday)1 p.m.HomeLouisville
May 18 (Tuesday)6 p.m.HomeUNCW
May 20 (Thursday)7 p.m.AwayGeorgia Tech
May 21 (Friday)6 p.m.AwayGeorgia Tech
May 22 (Saturday)1 p.m.AwayGeorgia Tech

Photos courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications

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