Shortly after North Carolina was eliminated from the College World Series last June, the players and coaches loaded their things and got on a bus to head back to their hotel.
There was nothing but dead silence on the bus when then-junior infielder Kyle Datres stood up and turned to the team. Datres, who would later enter the Major League Baseball draft, knew the Tar Heels had the pieces next year to get back to college baseball’s biggest stage, even if he wasn’t going to be there to see it.
He told his teammates and coaches that although they had achieved their goal of getting back to Omaha after a five-year absence, they shouldn’t be satisfied. With so many talented players returning, now it was time to use that momentum and win a national championship.
Everyone’s eyes were focused on Datres, including then-sophomore Michael Busch, who often thinks of that night. It keeps him motivated one year later as he tries to lead his team back to that stage and hopefully finally win one.
“I think this team has a legitimate shot,” Busch said recently.
It will not come easy, however.
The 23rd-ranked Tar Heels (38-17, 17-13 ACC) enter the ACC tournament this week as a No. 5 seed, after losing four of their final six conference games. They’ll play No. 9 seeded Virginia (32-22, 14-16) on Wednesday, and No. 4 seeded Miami (38-18, 18-12) on Friday.
In order to get back to the College World Series, the Tar Heels, who will likely be playing the majority of their postseason games away from Chapel Hill, will need a big postseason from Busch.
Busch, a 6-foot, 207-pound, first-team all-ACC outfielder, has been the Tar Heels’ best hitter over the last two seasons.
Busch is batting .281 with 12 home runs and 50 RBI. He has drawn 54 walks, and his .444 on base percentage is the best on the team. The Tar Heels are 28-10 when Busch has a hit and 10-7 when he does not. During late March and early April, he had a 14-game hitting streak, a 12-game RBI streak and homered in four consecutive games.
Last year as a sophomore, he hit .317, with 13 home runs and 63 RBI in his breakthrough season. He also drew 55 walks, which led the team.
“Somewhere along the line, before he got here, somebody taught him to look at the ball,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “It’s one of those things you can’t really coach, you can’t really teach ball-strike recognition.”
Busch, who is the second-youngest of eight children, grew up in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., a suburb of Saint Paul, where hockey is king. Busch has been skating since he was two years old, Mike Busch, Michael’s father said.
Whereas more children are playing one sport, year-round, Mike Busch wanted his children to play multiple sports so they wouldn’t get burned out.
“I always thought their ticket was going to be hockey,” Mike Busch said of his three sons.
By the time Michael Busch was a senior, he was one of the top ranked players in Minnesota and the best shortstop in the state. He committed to North Carolina over Minnesota, Oklahoma and others.
As a freshman at North Carolina, Busch played in 55 games and started 38. He struggled at the plate, hitting .215 for the year. During the Chapel Hill Regional last year, he was named most outstanding player after batting .636 during the regional.
Busch, a junior, is projected to go in the first round of the 2019 MLB draft.
UNC has been to the College World Series 11 times in school history, and played for the championship twice, but the Tar Heels have never won it all. Busch wants to achieve that goal in what could be his final year at UNC.
When asked what it would feel like to win a national championship at UNC, Busch paused for a moment, took a deep breath, leaned back and propped his foot up on the arm of a couch in the team’s club house.
“ I came here to win a national championship,” Busch said, “and if we did, that goal would be crossed off. It would be pretty cool to be apart of the first Carolina national championship.”