OMAHA, Neb. — Someone had to help get the College World Series breathing again. Why not the unseeded bunch from North Carolina State, led by a coach with a broken heart and wearing a 1970s vintage Wolfpack shirt?
The crowds were back Saturday in Omaha. The teams, the buzz, the beach balls in the outfield, the tailgaters setting up tents and chairs in Lot D at 8 a.m. Even the berrie kabobs. They’re still $8 too, only don’t even think of paying in cash. Cards only in 2021.
It was the same, but different. Digital tickets. A virtual national anthem. No long lines at 10 a.m. with bleacherites waiting to make the rush for the best locations, since everything now has to be reserved. No draught beer, only cans. You could get a seat on Ticketmaster for the North Carolina State-Stanford game for $7.88 Saturday morning. You could get a COVID vaccine at a station in one of the parking lots.
But there was baseball Saturday, and that meant a lot after the Great Darkness of June 2020. “This is something you dream about your whole life as baseball player,” North Carolina State reliever Evan Justice said after closing out Stanford in the 10-4 CWS-opening Wolfpack victory. It’s been two years since anyone could say that.
TD Ameritrade Park hosted its first College World Series game 10 years ago. This one had the juice of a coming out party, too. “I feel like in a lot of different ways we’re rejuvenating the tournament,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin had said of 2021. “We’re opening up the stadium again.”
Such a festive moment of rebirth required a proper storyline on the field to go with it. That’s where North Carolina State came in. Lots of angles to the Wolfpack rise, and more coming all the time.
They’re the slow starters who began their ACC season 1-8 and opened their super regional at Arkansas by losing 21-2. Still, they roll on.
They’re the guys who went 13-12 at home this season, but are now 23-6 on the road or at neutral sites.
They’re the assorted collection with a batting lineup Saturday of nine players from eight different states plus the Czech Republic. Eight of those nine scored at least one run Saturday. Jonny Butler had five RBI. Throw in closer Justice and you can add another state. In his last five appearances, he has struck out 19, and walked none.
They’re the team whose coach was wearing a T-shirt with a wolf image on the front Saturday that left no question about their intentions here. “This is the wolf we had when those guys Monte Towe, David Thompson, Tim Stoddard, Tommy Burleson won a (1974) national championship,” Elliot Avent said, showing an impressive grasp of Wolfpack basketball history. “I’m glad to see they brought it back, because this is what we all remember in the glory days of NC State.”
Yeah, Omaha feels good karma about now, and so do the Wolfpack. They had three runs after 11 batters Saturday. That’s how many runs Stanford allowed Texas Tech in their entire super regional. TD Ameritrade Park is often considered a place where deep fly balls go to die, but North Carolina State rode to a 6-0 lead with two home runs. “I think the wind was a little friendly today,” Butler said. Stanford starter Brendan Beck struck out 10 batters in 5.2 innings and you could count the number of pitchers who have ever done that in a College World Series on two hands. But he lost, and afterward had a simple answer to what he could have done differently.
“Keep the ball in the yard.”
Stanford, normally a sure-handed bunch, also had three errors. “They made some mistakes they hadn't made in quite some time,” coach David Esquer said. “Otherwise, we wouldn't be here.” Ten minutes after the game, the Cardinal players were still gathered around their coaches in the outfield, talking over a disappointing day.
Avent has led this North Carolina State surge in mourning, losing his 93-year-old father Jack over the winter. Earlier in the season, he talked of how his players had helped him through it. “Right now, I’ve been leaning on the players more than I ever have in my life,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of tough losses. There’s nothing that compares to this.”
By this week in Omaha, he could talk about how Jack Avent was a part of this journey.
“He only lived to watch us play and watch the Yankees on TV,” he said. “I thought that’s the only thing he was living for. I always thought I’d lose him in the fall. When he made it to January, I was just so crushed and so befuddled he got so close to the season. But when we were 1-8 in conference, I thought maybe Daddy just didn’t want to stick around and watch us play, because it was so hard.
“Now I think maybe he retired early so he could help me in a different place. Get this team to do some special things. I think every day a lot of this is attributed to him.”
Jack Avent will be on the mind of the North Carolina State coach a lot this weekend. He’d have loved watching the Wolfpack plow over Stanford Saturday, just as they did No. 1 Arkansas.
And Sunday is Father’s Day.
Joy, frustration, noise, and sentiment to tug at the heart. The College World Series is back.