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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | June 17, 2018

Past heartbreak pushing North Carolina in Omaha

OMAHA, Neb. – According to a story in the archives from the 2006 College World Series, the losing coach from North Carolina had to fight back tears after the championship game.

“Obviously, it’s a huge disappointment for us,” Mike Fox said that night.

Twelve years later, it still is. But time has moved on and so has Fox, and here he is again, back at the College World Series, still coaching the Tar Heels. But how can he not sense the past a little -- especially given the Tar Heels’ opponent Saturday afternoon?

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That night in 2006, North Carolina had lost 3-2 to Oregon State, the winning run coming across on a throwing error in the eighth inning. The evening before, needing only one victory to clinch, the Tar Heels had blown an early 5-0 lead and fallen 11-7. Two scoops of pain, courtesy of the Beavers.

But there’s more.

The next year, the Tar Heels were back in the championship series. So was Oregon State. This time, the Beavers rolled 11-4 and 9-3, completing a stampede through the CWS when they trailed only one of 45 innings.

That made two years, and two times that Fox stood in his dugout and watched the Oregon State Beavers dogpile, at his own team’s expense. And look who North Carolina is playing Saturday: Oregon State, and coach Pat Casey again. The setting is different, anyway. Rosenblatt Stadium then, TD Ameritrade Park now.

Fox dismissed this huge wad of irony Friday.  “Pat’s kids and my kids were seven or eight years old. My kids don’t know anything about it. His kids do, because they have the national championship banners on their wall.”

Ah, yes, there it is again. The memory of the two that got away, especially 2006.

“I don’t think about ‘06 and ‘07 until somebody asks me about it,” he said. But since someone had, here goes . . .

“How hard is it? It’s hard. You feel it. It’s like anything else in life. You get so close, and it doesn’t happen for you. It’s emotional because you see the pain on your kids’ faces. They’ve worked so hard and you want it for them. It is what it is, but it ain’t easy.

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“I’d rather have been beaten 10-0 than lose the way it went down. If we don’t make the error in the eighth, the score’s still tied. I think people still believe that lost it, but we still would have had to score. And being ahead 5-0 in (Game 2), you have to be careful not to look up at that scoreboard and start counting outs.”

Those two nights took some time for Fox to get over. What soothed the pain was the Tar Heels kept coming back to Omaha. This is their fifth CWS appearance since 2007, but they have never come as close as they did those two years.

“Getting back here in ‘08 and ‘09, that helped,” Fox said. “But you realize – you knew it even before you get here – it’s really, really hard to win a baseball national championship. You’ve got to be lucky and you’ve got to be good. I still may never win one, and you have to be OK with that, and that’s why you’d better coach for a lot of other more important reasons.”

He intends to enjoy this one, come what may. The Tar Heels arrive a day earlier. His wife came out on the charter with him. He spent time walking across the river bridge to Iowa.

“I’m trying just to soak as much of this in as I can. I don’t know if it’s going to be my last time or not. If it is, I’m not going to have any regrets, I know that,” he said. “Not that I didn’t appreciate it before. But you appreciate everything as you get older.”

He also understands there might not be a happy ending. He’s seen that movie before. Saturday afternoon, he’ll need only look across the field to the other dugout to be reminded.