By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — “That’s freakin’ awesome.”
It’s become a common way for UNC coach Scott Forbes to describe the Tar Heels’ many baseball wins since the exam break. The ACC champions head into the Chapel Hill Regional this weekend with wins in seven consecutive games and 12 of their last 13.
It first started when he talked to his team after Tomas Frick’s game-ending 10th-inning double on May 4 to beat Charlotte 4–3 in the first game after exams. Carolina (38–19), which meets Hofstra at Boshamer Stadium at 2 p.m. Friday (ESPN+), has lost only twice since then.
It’s a bit out of the Hubert Davis playbook in showing enthusiasm while not being profane. And it’s a little like Roy Williams, who let a few curse words slip out in press conference but mostly used other frickin’ words to deliver his message.
“That’s something me and Hubert have in common,” said Forbes, who cranked the siren during the Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff game Monday. “We try to hold our guys accountable. There are a lot of young kids at all of our games. And I think it’s important the way we speak and our language is good. So I guess I say freakin’ and I’ve been excited a time or two for these guys, and I couldn’t help it because this is a really special group.”
Forbes’ second season as head coach after taking over for the legendary Mike Fox has been special. It started in the offseason when two stars, outfielder Angel Zarate (.357, six home runs, 35 RBI) and shortstop Danny Serretti (.370, seven home runs, 45 RBI), could have turned pro but decided to come back, as Forbes puts it, “for the right reasons.”
Those decisions meant a lot to Forbes because they showed that both believe in him and the program.
“I guess every time I talked to them after a win, I’ll say, ‘That’s freakin’ awesome,’ ” Forbes said.
Soon, first baseman Hunter Stokely showed off a T-shirt with “freakin’ awesome” on it and #FreakinAwesome became a viral Twitter hashtag that appears frequently on the official @DiamondHeels account.
Forbes didn’t realize how frequently he used the phrase until his wife and two daughters pointed it out.
“I’m glad they took it and ran with it because they’re having a blast,” Forbes said of his players. “And that’s important, too. You have to have fun. You look at sports and kids have so much pressure now. You have social media, you have all this pressure on these kids and I remind them that it is something you should be enjoying and you have to play this game.”
There has been a reason why the phrase keeps coming up.
The Tar Heels’ prolific offense performed consistently all season but they didn’t start to turn their season around until the pitching staff, which struggled before the exam break, found its collective groove and became one of the team’s strengths.
Junior transfer left-hander Brandon Shaeffer (7–2, 3.70 ERA), who shut out No. 2-ranked Virginia Tech 10-0 Friday at the ACC Tournament one day after the Hokies scored 18 runs, says that pitching is a lot like hitting. It’s contagious once a few pitchers start putting together good games.
“You see guys coming out of the pen doing really well, starting to get some more length out of the starters and just everybody throwing the ball better,” he said. “I think it takes the pressure off them and once one guy gets hot, I think a lot of guys will get hot.”
Zarate admits that, during UNC’s tough stretch of five consecutive ACC series losses, he wondered if Carolina would even make the tournament, much less be a regional host.
“We came up with this thing, that you just have to keep running to the fire and can’t run from it,” Zarate said. “So, we had this mentality of ‘we got to play every game like it’s the postseason now. Everybody’s got to have their A-game every game.’ And that’s how we’ve been. This team, we just work hard every day to get better in some way, shape or form and I think it’s paid off. The job’s obviously not done yet.”
The mentality of playing every game during the last month of the regular season as if they were postseason games could give them an edge against teams that didn’t have to fight their way into the tournament.
“It’s the postseason now, and that mentality is just not going to change,” Zarate said.
If UNC keeps playing at a high level as it has the last month, it’s sure to be “freakin’ awesome” and could include a trip to the College World Series.
Chapel Hill Regional
Game 1: No. 1 North Carolina (38-19) vs. No. 4 Hofstra (30-21), 2 p.m., ESPN+
Game 2: No. 2 Georgia (35-21) vs. No. 3 VCU (40-18), 7 p.m., ESPN+
Game 3: Losers of Friday’s games meet, 1 p.m., ESPN+
Game 4: Winners of Friday’s games meet, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 1 p.m.
Game 6: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, 6 p.m.
Monday’s game (if necessary)
Two remaining teams play for the title, 6 p.m.
NCAA tournament bracket
Past regionals with UNC as host
(Regionals under the current format)
2006 — UNC went 3–0 to advance, beating Maine and Winthrop (twice); made College World Series
2007 — UNC went 3–0 to advance, beating Jacksonville, ECU and Western Carolina; made College World Series
2008 (Cary Regional because of Boshamer Stadium renovations) — UNC went 3–0 to advance, beating Mount St. Mary’s and UNCW (twice); made College World Series
2009 — UNC went 3–0 to advance, beating Dartmouth, Coastal Carolina and Kansas; made College World Series
2011 — UNC went 3–0 to advance, beating Maine and James Madison (twice); made College World Series
2012 — UNC went 2–2, beating Cornell and ECU, losing to St. John’s (twice)
2013 — UNC went 3–1 to advance, beating Canisius, Towson and splitting two games with Florida Atlantic; made College World Series
2017 — UNC went 2–2, beating Michigan and Florida Gulf Coast and losing to Davidson (twice)
2018 — UNC went 3–0 to advance, beating N.C. A&T and Houston (twice); made College World Series
2019 — UNC went 3–0 to advance, beating UNCW, Liberty and Tennessee; lost to Auburn in Chapel Hill Super Regional
Photo courtesy of the ACC