By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — A postseason power surge like no other in recent Carolina history has blasted the Tar Heels into the 10th Super Regional in program history, thanks to impressive pitching performances Monday.
After combining for 15 home runs in their previous four regional appearances, the Tar Heels won the Chapel Hill Regional with 14 homers, blasting two Monday night to knock off VCU 7–3 in the championship game before a sellout Boshamer Stadium crowd of 4,160.
UNC (42–20) will host Arkansas (41–19) in a Super Regional next weekend after the Razorbacks beat Oklahoma State 7–4 in Monday night’s Stillwater Regional final. Days and schedule will be announced later.
Two days ago, the Tar Heels had to win three consecutive games or their season was over. Now they are two wins away from a trip to Omaha for the College World Series.
The Tar Heels, 7–2 in Super Regionals, advance past the regionals for the first time since losing a three-game Super Regional home series to Auburn in 2019. It’s the first time in 10 tries that UNC has battled through the losers bracket to win a regional title under the current format that was adopted in 1999.
Carolina coach Scott Forbes was back after watching the two Sunday wins on television while serving a two-game suspension. He saw three of the same umpires who worked the Saturday game in which he was ejected. He greeted them with warm handshakes before the game but the crowd only had boos.
“I walk up today and the same two — the one that threw me out and then one that put the two fingers in the air [to indicate the suspension] — are out there on the field,” Forbes said. “I shouldn’t have done that to hurt our players. But it was emotional. I will say it’s a lot harder to watch on TV than when you’re in the dugout. I haven’t been so nervous for 18 innings, I don’t think, ever.”
He said that he watched the game with a group of people but he said where he watched was a “secret.”
“I did have to think, OK, this is gonna be a learning experience and I sure hope I don’t have to watch us lose at home,” he said. “I was just mad at myself because, really, you control your own emotions. I definitely didn’t agree with what happened, but I had to live with it.”
UNC seized the lead with four first-inning runs and made sure no bad calls were going to deny the Heels a regional title.
Pitching coach Bryant Gaines had no idea after Sunday night’s game what Carolina’s pitching plan would be, but struck gold by calling on Brandon Shaeffer and Gage Gillian (3–3). Forbes and Gaines texted each other as late as 1:30 a.m. about who should start. After some discussion in the morning, Gaines called Shaeffer to ask if he was available to start.
” ‘This is why I came to UNC,’ ” Forbes recalls Shaeffer saying during the call. “And as soon as he said that, Coach Gaines and I just said, ‘OK, we’re giving him the ball.’ We had to have somebody that could give us some length. And he did that.”
Shaeffer was ready.
“I was hoping he was gonna give me the ball tonight,” he said, adding that if he didn’t get a call, he would have told the coaches that he wanted the ball. “So, I was excited. I jumped up and started getting ready.”
On one day of rest since throwing 79 pitches in Saturday’s 4–3 loss to VCU, Shaeffer started and was impressive Monday night, all things considered.
“That’s why we all come here, is to play in the biggest moments in the biggest games,” Shaeffer said. “Going out there, I just put the fact that I was on one day’s rest out of my head and I just treated it like any other start.”
He gave up six hits and three runs in 3⅔ innings, striking out five while throwing 58 pitches. Shaeffer exited after giving up three hits and two runs in the fourth inning.
Gillian, pitching for the fourth time in the regional, took over from there and was outstanding, pitching 4⅓ shutout innings with one hit and four strikeouts.
Gillian said his adrenaline was pumping as he kept pitching and the crowd kept getting louder, anticipating a victory.
“It’s great knowing that we’re playing to go to Super,” Gillian said. “Coming out of junior college and then coming to a place I never thought that I would really get to, it’s indescribable really just to have the opportunity to be out there and just feel all that.”
UNC closer Davis Palermo retired VCU in order in the ninth inning with one strikeout.
Just like the night before, UNC came out swinging in the first inning, this time with four two-out runs. Regional MVP Mikey Madej’s majestic three-run home run to left field followed Alberto Osuna’s RBI single to right field.
Madej (left in top photo), when informed he was the MVP, said “that’s cool.” His play is a big reason UNC is moving on.
“I’m just happy. I’m super happy. The ball was finding grass,” Madej said of his offensive success.
VCU got one back in the bottom of the first on A.J Mathis’ bases-loaded, one-out groundout but Shaffer struck out Will Carlone to strand two on base.
Vance Honeycutt’s speed led to a third-inning run. After he walked, he went all the way to third base on pitcher Chase Hungate’s errant pick-off attempt and scored on Osuna’s single up the middle.
Danny Serretti’s two-run homer to right shoved Carolina’s lead to 7–1.
With 10 hits in the regional, Angel Zarate’s total was the highest for a regional since Dustin Ackley’s 10 in 2009.
The two regional losses to UNC were the only defeats for VCU (42–20) since May 4 and gave the Rams consecutive losses for the first time since late April.
“That lineup is dynamic,” VCU coach Shawn Stiffler said of Carolina. “They are a tremendous defensive team. They match up really well with their bullpen. They’re as good as any team out there.”
UNC 7, VCU 3
Chapel Hill Regional
North Carolina 15, Hofstra 4
VCU 8, Georgia 1
Georgia 24, No. 4 Hofstra 1; Hofstra eliminated
VCU 4, North Carolina 3
North Carolina 6, No. 2 Georgia 5; Georgia eliminated
North Carolina 19, VCU 8
Monday’s championship game
North Carolina 7, VCU 3
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications