RALEIGH, N.C. — N.C. State head coach Elliott Avent and his team have been through plenty of stressful moments this year. Maybe that’s why, late in a relatively easy 9-2 win over William & Mary (39-24) in the regional title game, the Wolfpack decided to make things interesting.
N.C. State had a 6-1 lead, but committed three straight errors and allowed a run to make it 6-2 in the top of the eighth. “I think we thought it was over, and when 20-year-olds think it’s over, they want to show you what they can really do,” Avent said.
But as usual, it took an unheralded performance by a senior as reliever Grant Sasser came in to strike out the next two batters he faced and end the threat. N.C. State (47-14) will be in its second straight Super Regional next weekend — not to mention the 44 games it won before this past weekend — in large part because of seniors like Sasser. Tarran Senay, another senior, had five RBI and his three-run homer in the first inning set the tone for the rest of the game.
“Seniors, it’s their last shot. They’re either living out the last year of their dream or they’re living somewhat of a disappointment because they’re seniors here and it didn’t work out as (well) as they envisioned when they walked on campus,” Avent said. “But your seniors have to be bought in and your seniors have to lead for your team to be successful, and that’s what our guys have done.”
While N.C. State is certainly thrilled to reach its second straight Super Regional, it was a businesslike team celebration after the final out. Muted. And no dogpile.
That was a conscious decision by the team, as much as a spontaneous celebration can be. Avent doesn’t like to think ahead to such things, but by the time N.C. State had two down in the ninth inning, he turned to assistant coaches Chris Hart and Brian Ward and said, “We’re not dogpiling, are we?”
“The players were kind of talking about it,” one of them said.
Not the right answer to give to Avent, a man who has been around this sport long enough to know how cruel it can be. But all he could do is control the future, and so, like all coaches are wont to do, he strategized.
“I looked at who I had in the dugout. I said, ‘Y’all will not dogpile’,” Avent said. “Then I looked at (outfielder) Brian Taylor who played football, a pretty fast guy and he’s used to running the scout team for the football team, I said, ‘You make sure you get to the bullpen and they won’t dogpile.’ So I had no control over the players on the field, but I had two factions taken care of.”
Fortunately, his players were thinking along the same lines. “I was kind of thinking that through in my head, and I would think it would be a lot better situation to not dogpile I guess. It felt like we made a big step forward as a school and as as team,” Turner said. “It feels like we’re starting to get back to a winning mentality and knowing that just making a regional isn’t good enough, that we can do more. I think we’re definitely building on what we have for the past two years.”
N.C. State still doesn’t know its opponent next weekend. Oregon, a team that got the final national seed somewhat controversially over N.C. State despite having a worse RPI, stayed alive in its regional with two wins. The Ducks will play Rice on Monday in the Eugene regional final.
Should Rice win, N.C. State would host a Super Regional for the first time in program history. But if Oregon wins, N.C. State will be traveling to Eugene next weekend.
Turner says he’ll watch, but more because he likes baseball. Like Avent and the rest of this team, he knows that they can only control so much. All N.C. State can do is beat whatever team is in front of them next weekend. Judging from its businesslike performance this weekend, the Wolfpack is ready to do that.
“We’re ready to play anybody. If we have to go to Oregon or if Rice comes to us, it doesn’t matter,” Turner said. “We know we have to go through a good team to get to Omaha and we’re ready to take on that challenge.”