CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- St. John's is an outsider at an NCAA baseball regional that has a distinct North Carolina flavor to it. But that doesn't mean the Red Storm is unfamiliar with either the surroundings or its first-round opponent.
Coach Ed Blankmeyer's Big East champion already has played a game this season at North Carolina's Boshamer Stadium, losing an 8-4 decision to the top-seeded Tar Heels on Feb. 28. The Storm also has a recent history against East Carolina, having split a pair of games against the Pirates at last year's regional in Charlottesville, Va.
Friday's rematch between second-seeded East Carolina (35-22-1) and third-seeded St. John's (37-21) is scheduled for 11 a.m. Host UNC plays fourth-seeded Cornell immediately afterward to complete the opening day of the double-elimination tournament.
"I like the fact that you're coming to a ballpark you feel comfortable in and playing programs you know are good," Blankmeyer said. "Knowing them and how they play gives you a little more familiarity."
Not all the memories of East Carolina are good. Although the Red Storm shut out the Pirates behind lefthander Sean Hagan to start last year's opener, ECU bounced right back to beat St. John's in an elimination game two days later.
It was a painful 6-4 loss that senior shortstop Matt Wessinger remembers well, which is why he was so excited when he saw this year's pairings and realized that his team would get another shot at the Conference USA power.
"It's always nice to get another shot at the team that ended your season," Wessinger said of ECU, which is located in Greenville, N.C., about 100 miles from Chapel Hill. "We know they're a tough bunch of kids and we're not going to go to sleep on them. We're just trying to have a different result than we had against them last year."
Unlike last year, Hagan won't start the opener against the Pirates. Neither will Big East Tournament MVP Matt Carasiti. Instead, Blankmeyer will go with junior Kyle Hansen, who is 4-5 with a 3.44 ERA but beat Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament last Saturday in his most recent start.
The Red Storm broke out of a late-season slump by sweeping four games at the conference tournament, marking the first time in school history it has won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles in the same season.