UNC shifts focus from what's ahead

OMAHA, Neb. -- In a line they came, approaching Mike Fox with insistent questions. They were eager, wanting answers and a mere bit of time from the North Carolina coach.

"Hey, can you please sign my baseball?"

"Can I have a picture?"

"Sign right there, please, right below the logo."

"OK, you got it, I'll do whatever you tell me to," Fox responded, either chuckling at the request or that it came from a little one with pigtails.

On Wednesday, the Tar Heels went to get work in on the baseball field at Boys Town, a local foster community for children. They went west, about 20 minutes from downtown, to loosen their arms and take some swings and manage the remaining hours before Thursday's game.

They already escaped one elimination game at the College World Series, a 4-2 win Tuesday against LSU. Now comes the next one, the inevitable: an elimination game against NC State, the club that originally sent the Tar Heels to dig out of the losers' bracket.

A small group of reporters showed up at Boys Town to ask the questions they asked before the first four times these teams met this season.

They huddled around Fox and asked about facing this team once again and whether he would have preferred to play UCLA. "Uh, no comment," Fox laughed.

They then huddled around Hobbs Johnson, the junior left-hander who will start Thursday for UNC, and asked him if he has mentally ditched his last outing against South Carolina in the super regional, one that ended after 1 2/3 innings. They asked him about the UNC-NC State rivalry, and he talked about how, at this point in the season, each game really is just another one. And at this point in the season, Johnson is mostly right. Each of the six teams remaining is so close to a championship that the opponent matters less and less.

Wednesday afternoon, though, the Tar Heels tried to push 7 p.m. CT Thursday as deep into the dark corners of their minds as they could. Fox has been to six of these things as a coach, and he knows minutes tick a bit slower here. When you're waiting on the next game, all of the hours can't be filled with scouting reports and pitcher tendencies and prep work.

So North Carolina went out to Boys Town and opened up the yard for all. An outfield full of players and kids -- some related to players and coaches, others part of the Boys Town community -- swayed back and forth as bodies competed and collided in pursuit of fly balls. Pitchers and team managers took turns in the cage. One boy sat on the shoulders of a pitcher in the outfield so his glove extended high enough in the air that at least the possibility of robbing a home run seemed real. Young voices yelled from beyond the outfield fence, "Hit it here! Come on, hit it here!"

Hearing the calls, Michael Russell, UNC's shortstop, stepped into the box for his final batting practice round. "OK, four cuts, they're yours," assistant coach Scott Jackson barked, indicating that Russell could swing away rather than follow an order to hit the ball to a certain part of the field.

"OK then, Coach, I'm gonna keep two in the field, and then I'm gonna send two out to the kids," Russell said.

Everyone around the cage laughed, because even with a thick wind blowing out to left, there was no chance Russell could send one out.

Freshman Skye Bolt stood beside the cage waiting for his turn, and began to get on Fox, who was throwing batting practice.

"Man, that guy out there is throwing meatballs," Bolt yelled.

This is the kind of crazy that takes place in this environment under Fox's watch, and all of it is by his design. Without the goofs, without the kids running around the field, without the familial welcome, all of the attention would be on Thursday, on NC State, on the most terrifying question you could ask North Carolina: Will the Wolfpack bring ace Carlos Rodon back on three days' rest?

That question fluttered around the practice field in private conversations on Wednesday. In a moment of honesty, almost everyone in North Carolina's lineup would say he expected to see Rodon.

He has faced the Tar Heels three times already this season, with the latest being nine mostly untouchable innings last Sunday in Omaha.

"But you know what?" Jackson said. "You gotta beat good guys to win this thing."

That's true for both NC State and North Carolina. The winner here has to beat UCLA, a team almost entirely built on pitching, twice to reach the three-game championship series next week. It's a long haul for anyone, four days of fighting against the end of spring and the beginning of summer for these teams.

As practice wrapped up and the players and kids filed out of the park, parents scooped up the young ones, those hounding Fox to sign where they told him. But the questions kept coming for Fox. This time from a father who brought his son up to meet the coach, to sell the high school left-hander to North Carolina. Fox shook their hands.

"Well, I'm sure we'll see ya somewhere over the summer," he said.

He's happy to do it, sign autographs and shake hands after being treated to a week of Nebraska hospitality. After the last kid had left, though, he let out a big sigh, his face flushed and sweat dripping off his cheeks.

Finally, after a couple hours of organized horseplay, he would like to relax and begin to think about the game again.

He grabs his hat and shoes and slides a tin can of sunscreen into his shorts pocket. The team bus idles behind the third-base dugout as Fox heads toward it, turning back to the big stage, ready to look ahead.

"If we can get past State, we have a real chance," he says. "Then you have to beat UCLA once, and then they become the team facing the pressure. But you know, you just take it one a time out here. That's all."

Fox climbs up the steps and disappears into the bus. There are no more playful workouts before Thursday night, nothing separates the most important meeting to date between North Carolina and NC State but a handful of quiet, empty hours.