Tar Heels poised for return trip to College World Series

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Many of the players from North Carolina's 2006 national runner-up baseball team still occupy key spots for the Tar Heels.

Junior Chad Flack, who flew out to center field with two runners on for the final out in last season's 3-2 loss to Oregon State in the College World Series finals, is starting at third base. Junior Josh Horton, who grounded out in the ninth against the Beavers, is still the team's slick-fielding shortstop.

And senior second baseman Bryan Steed, whose wild throw to first allowed the Beavers to go ahead in the eighth inning en route to their first national championship, is one of the team's top pinch hitters.

But two of the most prominent North Carolina players from a year ago -- and perhaps the most important pieces in the Tar Heels' improbable run to Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. -- no longer wear Carolina blue.

Starting pitchers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard -- who combined for a 22-6 record in 2006, including four of the Tar Heels' nine victories in the NCAA Tournament -- are pitching in the minor leagues after each was selected in the first round of last year's amateur baseball draft.

Miller, a left-hander, was the sixth choice in the draft, picked by the Detroit Tigers. Bard, a right-hander, was the 28th pick, by the Boston Red Sox.

Even after losing two of the most distinguished pitchers in college baseball, though, North Carolina coach Mike Fox was confident his team would be right back where it was a year ago.

Actually, the Tar Heels are ahead of last season's pace. On Sunday, they won their first ACC championship in 18 years by defeating Wake Forest 3-2 in the finals of the league tournament at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.

North Carolina lost each of its two games in the ACC tournament last season before winning nine in a row in the NCAA Tournament. Then the Beavers beat the Tar Heels twice to win the national championship.

"The past two years, we have used Jacksonville as a steppingstone," Horton said. "We would go back to Chapel Hill afterwards in order to regroup, so this is definitely a different feeling from that."

North Carolina will host an NCAA Tournament regional next weekend and -- if it survives the double-elimination, four-team field -- will host a super regional the following week as one of the top eight national seeds.

Much like last season, when the Tar Heels advanced to the College World Series for the fifth time in school history, the first since 1989, their starting pitching is carrying them into the postseason.

It's no surprise to Fox, who told everyone who would listen that his rotation would be fine this season, even without Miller and Bard.

"I have to say those things," Fox said. "I've got to be positive. We couldn't cry because those guys are gone."

Fox wasn't crying last summer because he knew that Robert Woodard, Luke Putkonen and Adam Warren were returning and that freshman Alex White was coming. Woodard, who was 7-1 with a 3.43 ERA as North Carolina's No. 3 starter in 2006, was drafted in the 46th round of the draft by the St. Louis Cardinals.

But Woodard, a right-handed senior, believed the Tar Heels were capable of returning to Omaha, so he delayed turning pro for one more season. Woodard is 9-2 with a 3.39 ERA this season and broke the school record with 32 career victories.

"We were lucky to get Robert Woodard back," Fox said. "We knew we could roll a guy out there on Friday nights that would keep us in every ball game. That allowed us to stabilize the rotation. We were able to let Alex work his way into the Saturday spot and let Adam get comfortable starting the midweek games."

Warren, a right-handed sophomore, is 10-0 with a 2.09 ERA, third-lowest among ACC pitchers. Putkonen, who had Tommy John surgery two years ago, is 7-1 with a 4.23 ERA. He allowed only three hits and one earned run in 6 2/3 innings against Wake Forest on Sunday.

White, a right-hander, is 6-4 with a 3.35 ERA. In Saturday's start against No. 8 Virginia, he shut out the Cavaliers for 7 1/3 innings, allowing only two hits with four walks and five strikeouts in the No. 3 Tar Heels' 5-0 victory.

"He's been our No. 2 guy all year," Fox said. "We've got great confidence in him. His teammates have great confidence in him. Freshmen have to play in this league. They just have to play because you're losing so many juniors to the draft."

Fox never could have imagined the contribution his team would get from freshman Dustin Ackley. The Tar Heels recruited Ackley to play the outfield, but he hurt his throwing arm in fall practice. With the freshman unable to throw, Fox moved Ackley to first base and Flack to third. For weeks, Flack practiced fielding ground balls at first, with the coaches hitting tennis balls to him with rackets.

North Carolina's coaches knew Ackley could hit, but not like this. Ackley hit .437 with seven homers and 63 RBIs. His batting average was second-highest in the ACC, behind only Florida State second baseman Tony Thomas Jr.'s .442.

"He's a hitting machine," Fox said. "It's the only way I can describe him. I've never seen a kid swing a bat like that."

The Tar Heels also are getting big contributions from two other freshmen: outfielder Tim Fedroff (.359, four homers, 33 RBIs) and second baseman /designated hitter Kyle Seager (.309, two homers, 11 RBIs).

"There's really not that much difference at all," said Horton, who was named MVP of the ACC tournament after driving in the winning run with a triple in the eighth inning against Wake Forest. "We had a couple of guys step out and a couple of guys step in. We knew exactly where we wanted to be."

Two weeks from now, the Tar Heels want to be back in Omaha.

But Fox knows getting there won't be easy.

"I think our road will be tougher this year because of last year," Fox said. "Expectations will be higher, and we'll have a bull's-eye on our chests. We'll have our hands full, and we'll have to play."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.