Tar Heels, Wolfpack elevate baseball rivalry
North Carolina and North Carolina State are doing their best to make their longtime baseball rivalry more than just a regional affair.
They met in an 18-inning game in last year's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament that drew the biggest crowd for a college baseball game in state history, then met not once but twice in the College World Series a few weeks later.
Now the programs separated by about a 30-minute drive enter the 2014 season among the nation's top-ranked teams — and they'd love to have another rendezvous on the sport's biggest stage.
"It was like kind of the perfect storm to highlight hopefully both programs and our league and college baseball in this area," Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said, "and just give it a big push forward."
The Tar Heels have been to the College World Series six times in the past eight seasons. Elliott Avent's Wolfpack made it there last year for the first time since the program's only other appearance in 1968.
They ended up in the same bracket, with the Wolfpack beating the Tar Heels 8-1 in the opener before the Tar Heels ended the Wolfpack's season with a 7-0 win in an elimination game before falling to eventual champion UCLA.
Both teams expect to play deep into June again.
N.C. State was ranked No. 5 in the preseason by Baseball America and boasts the publication's choice for the nation's top pitcher in Carlos Rodon and the top position player in Trea Turner.
During the team's preseason media day earlier this month, Avent — now in his 18th season — talked about the possibility of topping last year's run with "a parade in Raleigh sometime in July." Rodon said he thought it would be "pretty much a failure of a season" if the team doesn't make it back to Omaha, Neb.
"We think we have enough veterans and enough leaders where at the end, if we can get a little bit of luck — you always need a little bit of luck — then hopefully we can get back there," Avent said. "If we get back there, we expect a different outcome."
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, were ranked No. 17 in Baseball America's preseason rankings after losing stars like top hitter Colin Moran — who set a program single-season record with 91 RBIs — and pitcher Kent Emanuel.
UNC set a program record with 59 wins last year and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
The Tar Heels return pitchers Trent Thornton and Benton Moss, who combined to go 20-2 last year, as well as sophomore outfielder Skye Bolt to lead the offense.
It took extra effort to get the teams, which first played in 1895, together this year thanks to a quirk in ACC scheduling. The expanded league has a 30-game conference schedule, with teams playing all but three programs during the regular season.
When it was clear the Tar Heels and Wolfpack wouldn't have a weekend series in the league race, the two schools set up a nonconference game in Durham — site of that 18-inning marathon won by the Tar Heels 2-1 — for April 15.
Fox said the fact the teams didn't let the rivalry go dormant this year "shows that Elliott and I are not as dumb as people have said we are."
"It's like 'OK, let's see how long we can keep this wave and this run going,'" Fox said.
The Tar Heels won three of the five meetings last season, splitting two regular-season games in Raleigh before the third game was rained out.
"It didn't change (the rivalry), it just exponentially increased it," Moss said of 2013. "The stakes were higher last year and obviously they're a little bitter about how last year ended. We battled against them, had some great games against them. That's what fans want."