The backyard baseball rivalry between North Carolina and N.C. State has grabbed the national spotlight as the 2013 season approaches.
The Tar Heels are ranked No. 1 in Baseball America’s preseason poll and the Wolfpack is No. 8, the highest preseason ranking ever for the Wolfpack. The national magazine’s college preview issue features the two rivals on the cover, with a pair of stars from each team underneath a headline reading, “Tobacco Road to Omaha.”
The hype didn’t seem to bother coaches and players from either team as they looked ahead to the season, which begins next weekend.
“I think it’s great,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said Friday in Chapel Hill after the Tar Heels had wrapped up an intrasquad scrimmage. “Anything that creates interest in college baseball in this area is a good thing. There is no such thing as bad publicity.
“But you have to remember it’s a preseason poll.”
The Tar Heels were picked by the ACC coaches to win the league’s Coastal Division and the Wolfpack voted to win the Atlantic Division. But despite the Tar Heels’ status in national polls, the Wolfpack received the coaches’ nod to win the league – getting six first-place votes to four for UNC.
N.C. State coach Elliott Avent says he likes the high expectations.
“I like the heat,” he said Friday in Raleigh at the team’s media day luncheon. “I hope you have expectations every year. I don’t think you have expectations because somebody else gives them to you.”
The Wolfpack has made the Super Regional round three times in the past 10 years, including last season when the Wolfpack nearly secured a national seeding in the top eight. Instead, the Wolfpack had to go on the road for the Super Regional and came up short against top-seeded Florida.
Avent, whose team went 43-20 last year and got a big boost from a talented group of freshmen, thinks the Wolfpack is poised to make a run at its first trip to Omaha since 1968.
“I think it is probably the most talented team I’ve had since I’ve been here and we’ve had such great talented teams,” said Avent, who has a 599-382 record in 16 seasons as Wolfpack coach. “At the start of the season, you would have to say this team has an excellent opportunity (to make the College World Series). We have been close so many times and not kicked that door in.”
Left-hander Carlos Rodon leads the Wolfpack. He finished the season 9-0 with an ACC-best 1.57 ERA and finished second in strikeouts. He was named the Baseball America national freshman of the year and was the first freshman to become a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, college baseball’s Heisman Trophy.
Infielder Trea Turner hit .336 last year as a freshman and stole a school-record 57 bases. Both Rodon and Turner are preseason first-team All-Americas, a Wolfpack first. Turner will move from third base to shortstop. He’s a burner on the bases, but he it’s not about stats for the sophomore. He’s into winning.
“One thing this team has over last year’s team is we kind of figured out how to win (last season),” Turner said. “Going into this season, I think we know what to expect. We got out there and think that we are going to win and that is the demeanor you have to have to get to Omaha.”
North Carolina knows all about Omaha. The Tar Heels have been to the College World Series five times in the past seven seasons, finishing second in both 2006 and 2007.
The Tar Heels, 35-28 in 2012, return a weekend pitching rotation that features a trio with ERAs under 2.00 – junior left-hander Kent Emanuel (8-4, 1.96), sophomore right-hander Benton Moss (7-2, 1.94) and sophomore left-hander Hobbs Johnson (7-1, 1.56).
Colin Moran, a junior infielder who missed several weeks last season with a broken hand, hit .365 with three homers. Moran likes the fact that the Triangle rivals are in the national spotlight.
“It’s exciting stuff,” Moran said. “The past two years when we have played them, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s a good rivalry. It will be a good weekend of baseball.”
And if the preseason projections hold up, when the teams get together in Raleigh in the last weekend of April, it will be for a lot more than neighborhood bragging rights.