BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Back in the 1970s, ABC’s Wide World of Sports used the intro phrase “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” to perfectly sum up the fine line between the two results.
It perfectly encapsulated Sunday afternoon at Boshamer Field during Arkansas’ 4-3 win over North Carolina that clinched the Razorbacks a berth in the College World Series.
The Razorbacks (43-19) watched their 2-0 lead dissipate, capped by the Tar Heels taking a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth when struggling pinch hitter Patrick Alverez came through with a two-out single.
The clutch hit by Alvarez, who was 0 of his last 17 and batting just .121 entering the at-bat, gave the Tar Heels their first lead in two days.
But Arkansas scored twice in the bottom half of the frame with the rally starting with Jalen Battles and freshman Peyton Stovall delivering hits.
Brady Slavens’ RBI single plated Stovall and officially punched his team’s ticket to Omaha, Neb.
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn believes it was redemption after a 2021 campaign where Arkansas (50-13) was viewed as college baseball’s best team, but failed to make the CWS, falling one win short.
“This is special because of the way it went down last year honestly,” Van Horn said. “It was tough last year at this time. This is awesome. It never gets old. Never. It’s so hard.
“…It never gets old, it’s hard. What never gets old is the satisfaction and smiles on the player’s faces. I mean, it’s something they’ll never forget. That’s probably what I enjoy the most honestly now.”
Slavens, whose game-winner came after Braydon Webb’s run-tying ground out off Caden O’Brien, agreed with the sentiment.
“Well, we had a whole year to think about it,’ Slavens said. “A lot of the players were on last year’s team this year. That was basically the motivation was we’re not going to lose this year. We’re going to give it everything we have.
“I remember Jalen coming up to me in my last at-bat, and he was like ‘Hey, this is what we came back for. So go do it.’ All I could think about going up to the plate was last year’s heartbreak and wanting do it for this year’s team and last year’s team, honestly, not being able to make it.”
North Carolina senior shortstop Danny Serretti waxed poetic about the late game heroics and heartbreak for the Tar Heels (42-22).
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions for a number of different reasons, but it’s just baseball,” Serretti said. “It will rip your heart out. You can feel on the top of the world 30 minutes ago and then feel like garbage now. It sucks, but hats off to them.”
Arkansas had lost its last four games, 6 of 8 and 8 of 12 before turning its season around while winning the Stillwater Regional last week.
North Carolina head coach Scott Forbes was hoping his team could force a winner-take-all third game on Monday after Arkansas had taken a 4-1 win on Saturday.
“Wow, what a battle with two great teams,” Forbes said. “I want to congratulate Arkansas. Heck of a team, heck of a season they had.”
Forbes lauded the way the Razorbacks play baseball.
“Coach Van Horn and his coaches all do a tremendous job and they always have done a tremendous job,” Forbes added. “It is like watching our own team across the field.
“They play the right way, they play hard, they don’t showboat, they keep their mouth shut and they play baseball the way it is supposed to to be played.”
The CWS begins Friday and Arkansas will open action Saturday in Omaha and face the winner of the Monday night’s Stanford-UConn game.
North Carolina’s season ends, but not before a great run at the end of that saw it win 11 of 12 and 19 of 22 to just get into the NCAA Tournament.
“What a year for these guys (the Tar Heels),” Forbes said. “Man, oh, man…For a group of guys that in the preseason that nobody on the outside had expectations or thought that they would get anywhere, they did get somewhere. They won an ACC championship, won a regional Boshamer Stadium and came up just short.
“To no surprise, we fought to the end just like this team has played all season and that is why they got us all the way to this point.”
Arkansas had looked poised to take a 3-2 lead in the eighth, but North Carolina freshman star center fielder Vance Honeycutt made a great diving catch of a Slavens’ looper.
“I think it was Slavens and he just caught a piece of it and it just stayed in the air a little too long,” Honeycutt said. “I thought being able to hold them was important and then being able to scratch one.
But at the end of the day, they got us.”
To get to the College World Series, sometimes you need a surprise performance.
Arkansas had just that in starting pitcher Will McEntire, who pitched 5 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball.
“It was probably the best day of my life,” McEntire said.
Honeycutt was impressed.
“I thought he had good stuff today and they attacked us today like they did yesterday and they executed,” Honeycutt said. “Kudos to him.”
McEntire was followed to the mound by Evan Taylor, Brady Tygart, Hagen Smith and winner Zack Morris (6-0).
Seven Arkansas pitchers allowed just four runs in 18 innings of work.
“He (McEntire) had his pitches working today,” Serretti said. “It was tough to score all weekend and that is a credit to them.”