CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook reminisced about his days as a player and assistant at North Carolina as he walked around UNC’s Boshamer Stadium.
All that will stop, though, once his Gamecocks start their NCAA super regional series against the No. 1 overall seed Tar Heels.
“While I love the people here, I’m the coach at the University of South Carolina,” Holbrook said Thursday. “Columbia is my home now. And while I always have a little bit of North Carolina in me, I bleed garnet and black.”
The teams are scheduled to start their best-of-3 series today – though Tropical Storm Andrea’s path could alter plans – with the winner earning a trip to the College World Series. It’s the first meeting between the border-state programs since the Tar Heels beat the Gamecocks in the 2007 super regionals.
That was a year before Holbrook left UNC to become an assistant to Ray Tanner in Columbia, ending an 18-year stay in Chapel Hill that included being an all-Atlantic Coast Conference player and later an assistant to former coach Mike Roberts and current coach Mike Fox.
Now Holbrook is in his first year leading the Gamecocks (42-18), who had a 3-0 run to win the Columbia Regional last weekend and earn a matchup with the Tar Heels (55-9). South Carolina won national titles in 2010 and 2011, then finished second in 2012 in Tanner’s final season before he became athletic director.
Fox, now in his 15th year here, credited Holbrook for his recruiting work that helped lure eventual Major Leaguers like Matt Harvey, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Andrew Miller to Chapel Hill.
“That’s the one smart thing I did when I got here, was to keep him here because he helped me tremendously with the transition,” Fox said. “The 10-year run that Chad was with me and even before me with Mike Roberts was a great run for him and he did certainly a lot for our program.”
The emotions are even stronger for UNC associate head coach Scott Forbes, who served as an assistant alongside Holbrook.
The two were so close they were in each other’s weddings and even pooled their money to buy a lawnmower to share in their neighborhood.
“When you spend that much time together on the recruiting trail and the dugouts ... you have to separate that when you’re in the other dugout,” Forbes said. “We know and we joke about it all the time: at least one of us is going to Omaha.”
The Tar Heels started 39-2 and still haven’t lost consecutive games all year, but they’ve had a stressful two weeks. First they beat Clemson in 14 innings and then rival North Carolina State in 18 innings during a run to the ACC tournament title over Memorial Day weekend.
Then came the winner-take-all game in last weekend’s Chapel Hill Regional against second-seeded Florida Atlantic. In a wild game that lasted until after 1 a.m. Tuesday, the Tar Heels fell behind on a ninth-inning grand slam and a 12th-inning three-run homer only to rally each time and win 12-11 on Cody Stubbs’ RBI single in the 13th.
During that game, Fox used all three of his top starters <0x2014> Kent Emanuel, Hobbs Johnson and Benton Moss <0x2014> in relief as the Tar Heels kept rolling up the late-season mileage on their pitching staff.
Yet Fox said he thinks the close calls have made a tough team even tougher.
“After that crazy game Monday, it just felt like this team, we don’t like to lose,” said Emanuel, who threw 175 pitches in two games during the regional. “I think that showed. We’re excited to keep going and keep playing.”
Johnson (4-0) is scheduled to start Friday against South Carolina lefty Nolan Belcher (7-5), while Emanuel (11-3) is scheduled to go Saturday against Jordan Montgomery (5-1).
The schedule could change if Andrea follows her projected path through the Carolinas and brings heavy rain Friday. Neither team could practice due to steady rain throughout most of Thursday afternoon.
Fox said tournament officials would consult with the National Weather Service on Friday morning to see if the game will start at 1 p.m. as planned. A decision is expected by 11 a.m.
“As soon as we found out we were coming down here, it was, ‘All right, let’s get it started,’” South Carolina senior designated hitter L.B. Dantzler said. “I don’t want to be sitting around waiting, but sometimes you can’t control that.”