|NC State ready for shot at rival UNC in Omaha|
|Wednesday, June 12, 2013 10:48 PM|
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State waited a long time to make it back to the College World Series. It only makes it sweeter that the first opponent will be the Wolfpack’s hated rival.
N.C. State (49-14) left for Omaha Wednesday, the program’s first trip to the CWS since 1968 and just the second overall. Its opener comes Sunday against North Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
The last time the teams met, the Tar Heels won 2-1 in 18 innings over Memorial Day weekend in the longest game in Atlantic Coast Conference tournament history.
“It definitely is meaningful because we owe them another game,” N.C. State senior Tarran Senay said. “We owe them our best. It’s going to be tough but it’s going to be fun. It’s a big one.”
The Wolfpack advanced to Omaha with two 1-run wins against Rice in last weekend’s super regionals here. In the second game, N.C. State had to rally from three down in the ninth before finally winning 5-4 in 17 innings in the longest super regional game ever.
It was a breakthrough for a program that has reached the NCAA tournament in 10 out of 11 years and reached the super regionals three times during that span. N.C. State had lost at Miami in 2003, Georgia in 2008 and Florida last year in what amounted to the same frustrating roadblock.
N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said he went right back to work preparing for Omaha after the Rice win. But he gave his players two days off to savor the moment while he started sorting through the congratulatory messages from former players.
“It’s been a process,” Avent added of the Wolfpack’s climb. “Every person from Joey Devine to Aaron Bates and every person that I’ve heard from … the phone calls, the text messages, the tweets, the e-mails, it’s just been so special because everyone knows they’ve been a part of this.”
Avent has 648 wins in his 17 seasons and became the program’s winningest coach in 2010, passing Sam Esposito — the coach who led the 1968 team to its only previous College World Series.
N.C. State had to wait two days to find out who it would face in its CWS opener. North Carolina’s 3-game super regional series with South Carolina was delayed two days due to weather before the Tar Heels won Tuesday’s decisive game 5-4.
It will be UNC’s sixth trip to the College World Series in eight years, though the first meeting between the schools — separated by about a 30-minute drive along Interstate 40 — in the NCAA tournament.
“I do think it certainly has brought attention to college baseball in this area especially,” UNC coach Mike Fox said after Tuesday’s win. “I know how hard Elliott has worked over there with his program. It’s hard, it’s hard to get to Omaha — I keep telling myself that. We’re going six times in eight years and I told the players (Monday) night, it’s mind-blowing to me.”
The teams met three times this year, twice in Raleigh during an April series. The Tar Heels took the series opener 7-1 to end the Wolfpack’s 15-game winning streak, the program’s longest in a decade. N.C. State won the second game 7-3 but the third game was rained out.
Then came the ACC tournament marathon in Durham, which drew the biggest-ever crowd for a college baseball game (11,392) in the history of the state.
N.C. State’s players are ready for another shot at North Carolina — and beyond.
“We’re not going there to play two games, we’re going to play more,” sophomore Trea Turner said. “Hopefully we can do that against Carolina and whoever we play after that. We definitely think we can win it … and we’re going to give it our all.”
Coach Cohen builds Mississippi St. into a winner
STARKVILLE, Miss. — It’s taken just five years for John Cohen to revitalize Mississippi State’s baseball program and return the Bulldogs to championship contention.
The journey hasn’t been easy but a remade roster constructed with Cohen’s ideals of hustle, intensity and just enough talent have led the Bulldogs to the CWS for the first time since 2007. It’s only their second trip since 1998.
This group of blue-collar Bulldogs also have a healthy sense of humor.
“We’re just 27 dumb guys,” Mississippi State pitcher Luis Pollorena said. “But once you put us all together, you won’t beat us.”
Mississippi State (48-18) will face No. 3 national seed Oregon State (50-11) on Saturday in Omaha.
The Bulldogs do have one legitimate superstar. Junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe — who was the 13th overall pick by the San Diego Padres last week — leads the offense with a .360 batting average, 15 homers and 61 RBIs.
But the rest of the roster has been filled with interchangeable heroes. The most recent is senior left-hander Chad Girodo, who has struck out 24 batters in 13 innings during the postseason.
“Everybody kind of fits into this thing and you’ve got a nice mix,” Cohen said. “It’s like any recipe — it involves a lot of different ingredients.”
Cohen was an outfielder for Mississippi State during the program’s glory years, when the Bulldogs went to Omaha three times in 10 seasons, including his senior season in 1990. He was brought back to his alma mater before the 2009 season, charged with rebuilding a program that had turned mediocre.
But he looked like a bad fit in Starkville for the first two years, especially during the awful 2010 season that included a 6-24 record in the Southeastern Conference.
But a young group of players — included Girodo — believed in Cohen’s approach and helped the program grow.
The Bulldogs made a surprise run to the NCAA tournament’s super regional round in 2011 before losing to Florida and then won the SEC tournament in 2012. A veteran team returned this spring, started the season on a 17-game winning streak and hasn’t slowed down much since.
“If anyone watches what we do on a daily basis, you would understand that we’ve put in the work and the time,” Girodo said. “We’ve worked so hard on what we do and we’re finally getting rewarded for it. It’s so awesome.”
Cohen said it’s gratifying watching players like Girodo — who threw just 7 2/3 innings last season — mature into quality players.
“There’s a bond that forms, there’s no doubt about it,” Cohen said. “Those bonds will last forever and ever and ever.”
As Mississippi State’s roster has changed, so has Cohen. The 42-year-old is known for his aggressive personality but there hasn’t been much yelling lately.
The 48 wins have helped ease his blood pressure but so has a group of players that he recruited and now trusts.
Mississippi State first baseman Wes Rea said Cohen’s fiery reputation is well deserved but also a bit exaggerated; he gives the team’s captains a lot of input on decisions and is open to suggestions.
An example: Cohen relaxed the team’s no facial hair rule after pitcher Trevor Fitts put together a full Power Point presentation that included successful players who sported a scruffy face.
Mississippi State might pride itself on a loose attitude but they’ve been quite efficient when the games come. The Bulldogs have won 12 of their last 15, including an impressive 2-game sweep over Virginia in the super regional round to advance to Omaha.
Now Mississippi State will try to win its first national championship in baseball. This is the Bulldogs’ ninth trip to Omaha but they’ve never finished higher than third.