BANGOR — When it was announced that the University of Maine’s baseball team would be facing host North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the opening round of their four-team, double-elimination NCAA Regional, there was a loud eruption of joy from the Black Bears at a reception for them at the Sea Dog Brewing Company.
“I’ve never been to a regional. I was excited to see our name up on the screen,” said ace righthander Keith Bilodeau, who was watching the NCAA baseball tournament selection show on ESPN along with his mates, coaches and well-wishers.
“It doesn’t matter who we play, whether it’s the number one team in the country or the last-place team, we’re still going to play them the same,” added Bilodeau. “We’re going to give them our all.”
North Carolina is the nation’s third-ranked team and will enter the tourney with a 45-14 record. The Tar Heels will play fourth seed Maine, 32-22, at Boshamer Stadium at 6 p.m. on Friday.
The tourney opener, which will start at 1 p.m., will pit second seed Florida International (40-18-1) against third seed James Madison (40-17).
The Black Bears and the Tar Heels met in February, 2010 in Chapel Hill with UNC sandwiching 11-1 and 8-4 wins around a 5-3 setback to the Black Bears.
The last time Maine went to a regional, in 2006, it was in Chapel Hill and the hosts handed Maine a 15-7 opening-round setback.
“One nice thing is we’re very familiar with Chapel Hill,” said Maine coach Steve Trimper. “We not only played them there in ‘06, we played that three-game series there last year and knocked them off with two freshman pitchers, Jeff Gibbs and Steve Perakslis.
“I guarantee they’re shaking in their boosts right now because they know we have some good arms going down there,” said Trimper whose Bears beat current Tar Heel ace Patrick Johnson last season.
“We’re excited to be staying on the East coast. We know the hotels, we know the area and we know where the restaurants are,” the coach added.
He thought the NCAA would keep them on the East coast “just for travel reasons.
“I was hoping that we wouldn’t get a West coast draw. I was thrilled to go to North Carolina or Clemson (S.C.). Clemson would have been nice,” said Trimper who received a call from Clemson coach and former Maine baseball and football star Jack Leggett on Sunday night.
“We were both crossing our fingers hoping that we ended up down there,” said Trimper.
Maine senior right fielder and tri-captain Joey Martin said Chapel Hill is “going to be a great place to play. It’s a really nice ballpark.”
Junior center fielder Taylor Lewis said there will be a “little comfort level” since they played there last season.
“They’re very good and we’re a good team as well. It’ll be interesting,” said Lewis.
Lewis remembered that it was a “gorgeous” ballpark and North Carolina’s fan base was “huge.
“And that was the first game of the season. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like down there for the regionals,” said Lewis.
The Black Bears will enter the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country.
They have won 17 of their last 18 games including three straight wins in the America East Tournament.
They will take that confidence into the tournament.
They won’t be awestruck and they aren’t satisfied just earning a berth.
“We’re going down there to win,” said Bilodeau. “We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’re taking things day by day. We’re going to keep working hard in practice. If you practice hard, pieces are going to fall into place. Hopefully, we’ll get a few wins out of it.”
Lewis added, “This was our goal ever since the beginning. We don’t want the season to end, especially with the group of guys we have. We’re going down there looking to compete and we will compete.”
“We aren’t just going down there to show up,” said Trimper. “Some people think we’re going to try to shake the world but we feel we can go into this thing with our group of pitchers plus clean defense (and be successful).
“The pressure is on the other teams. The pressure is on North Carolina. They’re supposed to beat us bad. We’re going to go down there and give them a good run,” added the Bear skipper who said the Tar Heels will be “well-coached and will have good pitching.”
Bilodeau added, “We’ve been pitching real well lately and we’ve also been hitting real well. Hopefully, we’ll keep it going.”
Trimper and the players said the challenging early schedule that saw them play the likes of teams like Florida State, the nation’s fifth-ranked team, and Central Florida, which will be the second seed behind Florida in the Tallahassee Regional, paved the way for their late-season success.
Trimper praised his veterans for their resilience and the youngsters for their development.
“The veterans continued to grind and get themselves out of a couple of slumps and our young guys constantly got better,” said Trimper. “It’s a team effort and a combination of everyone playing well. It’s all about getting hot at the end.”
Freshman third baseman Alex Calbick said he couldn’t have asked for a better script to his freshman season.
“We wanted to go to the regionals and (the coaches) have had enough confidence in me to put me in (the lineup) every game. It’s a good deal,” said Calbick. “We can do well down there. Those are really good teams but I think we have a really good shot to win.”
Another person with Maine ties will be headed to the NCAA Regionals as former Maine coach Paul Kostacopoulos guided his U.S. Naval Academy team to its first Patriot League title since 2002 and a berth in the University of Virginia Regional where it will face the nation’s top-ranked team, the host school, in the opening round.