A recap of the Tar Heels CWS run: Seminoles chop the Heels down – a great season comes to an end in Omaha

Photo by: Anthony Sorbllini.

 SPORTS; COMMUNITY NEWS

By Thomas Hicks
Correspondent

Omaha, Neb.—In every season, there is one constant. Every playoff team gets sent home after a loss that ends their season, except for one team that is both talented and lucky.

And the Tar Heels were one of the many teams this year that ended their season with a heartbreaking loss.

The Diamond Heels were one of the best teams in College Baseball this year. They finished the season as the No. 4 overall team, won the ACC Regular Season Championship (which they haven’t done since 2013) and hosted their Regional and Super Regional rounds of NCAA play. This was all before they made it to the College World Series (CWS) and would compete for the National Championship.

What is even more impressive is they achieved all of this despite losing not one but two starting pitchers. Senior Jake Knapp and Freshmen Folger Boaz both suffered injuries that kept them out of most of the season. Knapp, a right-hander, suffered an injury to a ligament in his throwing arm before the season started and Boaz hurt his left elbow in a game against South Carolina that was played in Charlotte, NC.

But despite overcoming many challenges stemming from injury, the team went on to have great success. Yet, they could not overcome their last two challenges of the season: the No. 8 Florida State University Seminoles and the No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers.

The trip to Omaha started out promising. The Heels had their 3rd walk-off win this postseason against the University of Virginia in their first game last Friday. Vance Honeycutt, who is projected to be drafted in the top-20 of this year’s MLB draft, hit a single to drive in the winning run for the Heels.

However, Carolina wouldn’t fare as well in the matchup against No. 1 ranked Tennessee on Sunday.

The game got off to a slow start for both sides.

With very few hits and no runs scored entering the 4th inning it looked like neither team would get their top-ranked offenses going. Junior Shea Sprague had pitched a good game so far for the Heels. He gave up one hit and he walked in the bottom of the 4th.

With two outs in the inning, Kaveres Tears walked up to bat for the Tennesse Volunteers. Tears is a big, strong,  6-foot, 200-pound junior outfielder, who after yesterdays win to advance to the final series against FSU, hits 0.329 and has 20 home runs this season. This gave Sprague reason to be avoidant of Tears’ bat and he threw two balls to start the at-bat. He then tossed a pitch right in the middle of the batter’s box, which Tears used to rip a home run to right field to put the Vols up 3-0.

Tennesse would ride the momentum created by Tears’ home run (and starting Pitcher Drew Beam’s performance on the mound) to victory. Beam managed to give up only one run in 5 innings and notched seven strikeouts.

The Heels could only muster one run the whole game and would lose 5-1.

“Lot of credit to Tennessee; I thought Drew Beam was really, really good,” said Forbes to start the post-game presser. He went to say of his team’s batting and pitching, “At the end of the day they got the big hit and could capitalize and we didn’t.  Top to bottom I think we pitched the ball pretty well.”

However, the Heels still had a route to the Championship game.

Carolina only needed to win their next game to get another crack at Tennessee. Winning two games against the Vols would allow them to play in the best-of-three series for the national title. From that point on, however, it would not get better for the Tar Heels after that game-defining moment. Their last chance they had to recover was to win the elimination game to get their shot at a rematch with Tennesee.

FSU lost their first game but was able to beat fellow ACC member Virginia to advance to the next elimination game against the Tar Heels. The winner would go on to play Tennessee.

In the elimination game the ‘Noles played a good ballgame. Florida State hopped out to a 7-1 lead midway through Tuesday’s game and things looked hopeless for the Heels.

Pitcher Dalton Pence, who has been a Herculean figure for the Heels this postseason, struggled when he subbed in early for the Heels. Pence has only given up three hits in 12 and ⅓ innings during NCAA play this postseason. But against the Seminoles he surrendered eight of FSU’s 14 total hits in his 2.1 innings pitched.

But all the blame is not be put on Pence, as the bats were inconsistent for Carolina and no one on the pitching staff had an answer for Florida State that day. And sometimes teams get hot. No one can control that. On that day the Seminoles were surely on fire.

But Carolina did mount a comeback in the bottom of the 5th. The Tar Heel hero known as Honeycutt hit a home run to left field that drove in two baserunners to make it 7-4. Shortly thereafter, Senior Jackson Van De Brake would send his fellow senior Parks Harber home on an RBI single to close the gap to 7-5.

Vance Honeycutt heading to 1st base. Photo Courtesy of  Anthony Sorbllini.

Afterward, Honeycutt  remarked, “It’s just kind of how this team’s been all year; there’s just no quit.”

A little hope could be seen for the Heels. A two-run deficit can easily be erased in college baseball. The Heels mounted just such an epic comeback to knock off reigning national champions LSU in the regional round. Two runs in two innings to force extra innings was doable.

However, any hope that Carolina held on to after their four-run inning was all but diminished in the top of the ninth when Florida State sent two solo home runs outside of the outfield on back-to-back at-bats. Any momentum UNC had was completely sapped away after that. They could not mount a comeback in the bottom of the 9th inning and left the field as one of those teams that end the postseason with a loss.

Florida State moved on to play Tennessee.

And Carolina moved on back to Chapel Hill.

Since Tennessee already has one game in the winner’s bracket against UNC, they only need one win to advance to the championship series. Florida State will have to win twice to upset the Vols and advance to the final series, which is a best-of-3 series.

The Heels have a lot coming back for the next season, pending any transfer portal exits, and plenty of experience and success to build on. But unfortunately for the program, they will in all likelihood lose Honeycutt to the draft. As aforementioned,  he is supposed to be a top-20 draft pick and, while he has not officially declared himself eligible, all projections have him going to the draft and starting his pro career.

Honeycutt racked up an array of awards and statistics in his time donning the sky-blue jersey. He was named the ACC-Defensive Player of the Year twice, in 2023 and 2024. He was the ACC tournament MVP during his freshmen campaign in 2022. In his career, he batted a more than respectable 0.291 average and totaled 64 home runs in his 3 years.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Heels. They should have two starting-caliber pitchers return to full health next season. After such a great year it can be assumed plenty of transfers may want to call Chapel Hill home. Dalton Pence has shown a lot of promise this postseason, despite the Florida State game, and posted a very respectable ERA of 1.92. Freshmen who played key roles are returning, like starting catcher Luke Stevenson and starting 3rd baseman Gavin Gallaher. Gallaher made headlines when he started off his NCAA postseason career with a walk-off grand slam in the first game of regional play against Long Island.

UNC has not been back to Omaha in quite some time. The Diamond Heels last showed up under legendary former coach Mike Fox in 2018. This is head coach Scott Forbes’ first appearance while being the program leader. All of this season’s success points toward progress and growth under Forbes.

“They gave our fans so much to be excited about, so much to look forward to,” said Forbes.

Forbes thinks the fans have more to look forward to, too It seems more than reasonable to think we can expect even more from UNC in the future.


Thomas Hicks is a journalist with video, PR, and writing experience who studied at UNC and the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Thomas is always looking for work and the next story! He loves working with his camera or with his pen. This reporter can be contacted at thomasjhicks55@gmail.com, LinkedIn: Thomas Hicks and X: ThomasJ_H

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