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Impact Freshmen Key to North Carolina's Omaha Run

The North Carolina Tar Heels are returning to the College World Series for the first time since 2018 and for the first time under head coach Scott Forbes. Much has been made about the experience-laden lineup led by the likes of superstar Vance Honeycutt, Georgia transfer Parks Harbor, and the up-the-middle combo of Colby Wilkerson and D3 transfer Alex Madera. But, the key to this North Carolina baseball team seems to revolve around three freshmen.

Starting pitcher Jason DeCaro, third baseman Gavin Gallaher, and catcher Luke Stevenson have been instrumental in UNC's run to Omaha. DeCaro, who only just turned 18 years of age in April, has been the Heels' ace since fellow freshman Folger Boaz was lost to injury midseason. He leads the team with 17 starts and is 6-1 with a 3.89 ERA in 85.2 innings pitched. Opposing hitters are batting just .219 against him this year. He'll get the ball against Virginia on Friday afternoon in Omaha.

"It's a privilege that we get to be here and experience all this," DeCaro said about reaching the College World Series. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am never going to forget this."

Gavin Gallaher, the Most Outstanding Player of the Chapel Hill Regional, has spent time in left field and at third base for the Tar Heels this year. In 50 games, the Apex, North Carolina native is hitting .337 with fifteen extra base hits and 38 RBIs. His walk-off grand slam against Long Island in the Regionals will be remembered for years to come.

Gallaher wasn't expected to be a regular starter. With Wilkerson and Madera up the middle and All-ACC second teamer Jackson Van De Brake entrenched at third base, Gallaher himself expected to be a bench piece.

"There's so much great talent on this team," he said, "so I knew it was going to be a battle to compete for playing time in general."

When Van De Brake struggled to start the year, Gallaher took advantage of the opportunity by providing great defense and a good bat at the bottom of the UNC order. But it wasn't always easy for the young infielder.

"In my first at bat, I swung at three fastballs above my head and struck out," Gallaher said with a smile. "That was my welcome to college baseball moment."

Luke Stevenson has caught nearly every game for the Tar Heels since stepping on campus. The freshman has been a consistent presence behind the plate providing very good defense and handling a talented pitching staff all the way to Omaha. His powerful bat has been a boost for North Carolina and has resulted in quite a few big moment home runs. The backstop is hitting .282 and has played in every game this season while swatting 14 homer and driving in 58 RBIs. Not many freshmen can come in and catch the way he has, and provide the offensive boost that he's provided.

Coach Scott Forbes knew he had a special class when the Tar Heels started practice in the fall.

 "As soon as we started up in the fall, it was like, okay, this is an extremely talented class," the fourth year head coach said. "We felt like we needed way more depth, especially on the mound, and we felt like we had hoped this class could address that."

That depth has been essential in overcoming the injuries to two key members of the weekend rotation in Jake Knapp and Folger Boaz. It's allowed Gavin Gallaher to emerge at third base when Van De Brake struggled.

"We felt like if two of these or three of the position players, including the transfer portal guys, can make an impact and some of these arms can make an impact, we had a chance to have a special team," Forbes said of his recruiting class.

With Gallaher's postseason heroics, DeCaro's quality innings, and Stevenson's steady influence behind the plate, I think it's safe to say that this UNC team has been pretty special. While the focus will be on the likes of Vance Honeycutt, Casey Cook, and Parks Harber, it'll be the freshmen trio that'll determine whether this 12th visit to Omaha leads the Heels to the promised land.

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