An N.C. State team, whose struggles during parts of the regular season put postseason hopes in doubt, has pulled one upset after another while taking its fans on a joyous NCAA tournament ride.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, right? Like maybe 38 years ago?
In its last three games, coach Elliott Avent’s Wolfpack unseeded baseball team defeated teams seeded No. 1, No. 8 and No. 4 nationally.
Like Jim Valvano’s basketball team in 1983, N.C. State’s baseball team has reached the final four of its sport. Like the Cardiac Pack, Avent’s baseball team wants to finish the ride on top by winning an improbable NCAA championship.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence,” NC State freshman pitcher Sam Highfill said Monday night, after he pitched the Wolfpack to a 1-0 win over No. 4 seed Vanderbilt. “We’ve slayed a lot of giants. Trying to carry it forward.”
Highfill helped NC State (37-18) achieve a monumental accomplishment. By beating Vanderbilt, the 2019 national champion, the Wolfpack is the first team to defeat the reigning CWS champion and the No. 1-seeded team in the same tournament since the current seeding formula was implemented in 1999.
N.C. State eliminated the tournament’s top seed, Arkansas, in the Super Regional round to reach the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. The Wolfpack famously lost 21-2 to Arkansas in the opening contest of their best-of-three Super Regional series in the Razorbacks’ home stadium before winning the next two games 6-5 and 3-2.
Survive and advance, right?
“For me, I’m really at a loss for words, honestly,” N.C. State Terrell Tatum said Monday night, after his solo home provided the difference in the 1-0 win over Vanderbilt. “From the start that we had and where we’ve been, I would say, like, this is — we’re really on top of the world right now. This feeling is unmatched, especially to do it here at this stage is one of the greatest feelings I probably ever felt in my life.”
Yes, about that start N.C. State endured.
Back in February and March, the Wolfpack lost eight of their first nine ACC contests. The Pack also squandered a seven-run lead to suffer a 16-13 loss to UNC Greensboro during that stretch.
On March 21, after absorbing a three-game sweep at home to Louisville, N.C. State stood 4-9 overall and 1-8 in ACC play.
From there, Avent settled on a starting lineup and a pitching setup and the Wolfpack went on a tear that included ACC series sweeps of North Carolina, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Pitttsburgh.
Since losing 1-0 to Duke in the ACC tournament championship game on May 29, the Wolfpack have rolled through the NCAA tournament on the road, topping Alabama once and host Louisiana Tech twice to win the Rustin, La., Regional.
Beating top-ranked Arkansas meant handing SEC pitcher of the year Kevin Kopps his lone loss of the season, a 3-2 setback in the deciding game of the series.
Once in Omaha, the Wolfpack bested Stanford 10-4, handing a loss to Pac-12 pitcher of the year Brendan Beck.
Then Monday night Tatum’s home run, plus pitching from Highfill and relief ace Evan Justice, allowed N.C. State to hand a loss to Vanderbilt pitcher Jack Leiter, who is expected to be the first pitcher selected in next month’s MLB Draft.
Avent said once the team got through its early doldrums, the players have held themselves accountable and thrived.
“The most talking we’ve probably done to these guys is when we were scuffling earlier in the year, trying to get the lineup on the field and trying to figure out the pitching,” Avent said. “But for the last two, three months, we haven’t said much at all to these guys because they know what they want and they know how hard it is to get and they know how committed they are to one another. And so we just -- I don’t think they let any moment become too big for them. So that’s them that gets that done. That’s not us. And they’re just fun to watch play.”
N.C. State’s next challenge comes Friday against either Stanford or Vanderbilt, who play an elimination game on Wednesday night. Whichever team survives that game will have to beat N.C. State Friday and Saturday to knock out the Wolfpack.
Otherwise, N.C. State will move on to the best-of-three College World Series championship series that begins Monday night.
Rested and ready, the Wolfpack are in position to deliver N.C. State’s biggest athletic accomplishment since that magical March in 1983.