Tomorrow, the ACC Tournament Champions, the UNC Tar Heels, will open play in the Chapel Hill regional of this year’s NCAA Baseball Tournament. This sentence which was inconceivable about this time last month. There are a lot of things you could point to as inspiring UNC’s total turnaround, which culminated in 15 of their last 17 games being won after they’d won just 6 of their previous 20 — you could talk about Max Carlson seizing the reins as Friday starter and settling in to give the Heels’ bullpen some stability. You could talk about the team embracing Scott Forbes’ catchphrase, “Freakin’ awesome,” and using it to play looser. Or you could talk about Danny Serretti, who stepped up big-time and batted .443 over UNC’s hot streak with 21 RBI. You could even mention the parallels between this team and UNC men’s basketball, from whom Forbes took inspiration when things seemed a little dire thanks to his friendship with Hubert Davis. All of those are valid responses, but I’m here to focus elsewhere. Namely, on the UNC freshman who was just named ACC Tournament MVP after putting on an absolute clinic on offense and defense over the course of the week. I speak, of course, of Vance Honeycutt.
You’ve probably already seen a lot of the superlatives around Honeycutt, but they’re worth repeating regardless. His 21 home runs for the season are a UNC freshman record, breaking that set by eventual MLB first-round pick Aaron Sabato. He’s also stolen 28 bases on just 32 attempts, making him the only freshman to put up a 20-20 season in the past 11 years and the only UNC player ever to do it. Not freshman, player. He became the first freshman in the past 17 years to be named ACC Tournament MVP after hitting 4 home runs in 5 games, including two in back-to-back at-bats to open the final against N.C. State that basically ended the game as fast as it started. Even with a two-month slump in the middle of the season, he finished it with an OPS of 1.03, which is elite territory.
And his defense might be even more impressive than all that. As a freshman, he won Forbes’ trust immediately to start at center field, with his athleticism making him an immediate plus at one of the most demanding field positions in the sport. He had just 3 fielding errors all season, and all season long, pulled off plays like this:
It's a bird!— Carolina Baseball (@DiamondHeels) April 7, 2022
It's a plane!
It's Vance Honeycutt with a #SCTop10 catch!
Vance Honeycutt with the running catch on the warning track!— Carolina Baseball (@DiamondHeels) April 16, 2022
"I think we can all agree that's probably the best play we'll ever see in our lives." - Alberto Osuna— Pat James (@patjames24) May 20, 2022
ICYMI: Vance Honeycutt added this unbelievable grab to his freshman highlight reel in the @DiamondHeels’ walk-off win tonight pic.twitter.com/l9JPTXMDr5
and this (go to 1:41 if it doesn’t automatically):
From UNC’s May-opening series against N.C. State to now, Honeycutt is slashing .377/.492/1.075, catching fire at exactly the right time for UNC. He seems to have fully gotten over his midseason slump, which saw him shuffled around the batting order and seemingly unable to make solid contact, and is back to terrorizing opposing pitchers like he did when he burst onto the scene in the first few weeks of the season. He’s already playing like one of the best college baseball players in the country, and he can still get so much better — he can get more consistent, of course, and improve his plate discipline with experience at this level. Heck, he’s even got a chance to re-break the NCAA freshman home runs record, which was set in the ACC Tournament semifinals by N.C. State’s Tommy White, who hit 27 before the Wolfpack were snubbed from the tournament. If he and the Heels maintain their form through their regional and beyond, it’s well within reach.
This team has been a ton of fun to watch as they’ve regained the form that made them the hottest team in the country to start the season, but doing it in slightly different ways. They’re full of interesting stories and very easy to root for as a squad, and it’s pretty freakin’ awesome, if you’ll pardon my usage, to have a UNC team to keep rooting for this deep into the year — the school semester is well past over at this point. But right now, I just wanted to shine a brief spotlight on UNC’s newest freshman phenom, and express the joy he’s already brought from watching him, the hope that he keeps raking deep into this postseason, and the excitement I’m sure we all feel that we definitely get to watch him for two more years.