RALEIGH — Brett Williams tried to boil N.C. States season down to a sequence of numbers. He couldnt quite do all the math.
To get to the College World Series, N.C. State has endured one slow start, two epic postseason games and four injuries to key starters.
After four months and 49 wins, the Wolfpack finds itself in Omaha, Neb., the middle of the country, pitted against North Carolina, a team from the next county over, with a shot at the national title at stake.
Its incredible the way everything has come together for us, said Williams, a senior centerfielder.
To be sure, there was some luck involved to N.C. States breakthrough season, but it was not by accident. After years of fielding good teams, getting to the NCAA tournament nine of the previous 10 seasons, and almost great the 2003, 08 and 12 teams reached the Super Regional coach Elliott Avent has N.C. State in Omaha for the first time since 1968.
It has been a process, said Avent, who is 648-395 in 17 seasons. Theres no doubt about it.
The process from good to great has been accelerated by a pair of special sophomores, pitcher Carlos Rodon and shortstop Trea Turner, and an unusually large group of seniors, who have seen the program get better every year.
Its one thing to be the team that might possibly win, which we were my first two years, senior pitcher Ethan Ogburn said. Its another to be the team thats supposed to win. Theres a big difference.
Rodon chose Pack over MLB, UNC
You cant talk about N.C. State without talking about Rodon. And no one likes to talk about Rodon more than Avent.
Thats my favorite subject, Avent said.
As he is prone to do, Avent will enthusiastically wind up and meander through a Rodon story with a pit stop through pitch counts for his bullpen and a Bucky Dent sidebar which boils down to this point: Rodon has been ridiculously good for N.C. State.
In two seasons, Rodon is 18-2 with a 2.39 ERA. He has struck out 305 batters in 233 innings (compared to 83 walks).
Hes a once-in-generational player, Turner said.
One that N.C. State almost didnt get. At 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds, Rodon is built like an NFL linebacker but throws like a major league pitcher.
That hes the rarest of commodities, a left-handed power pitcher, only adds to his pro value. But Rodon, who committed to N.C. State as a sophomore at Holly Springs High, saw his draft stock slip during his senior year of high school.
With a crowd of scouts at one of his senior starts at Holly Springs, Rodon suffered back spasms. His fastball slipped into the 80s during the middle innings and his draft stock went with it.
Instead of an early-round pick, he lasted until the 16th round of the 2011 draft. The Milwaukee Brewers made some preliminary offers but none to Rodons liking, at least not one until he had moved into his dorm at N.C. State
The money wasnt right, Rodon said of the initial offers. The money was there on the last day and I told myself, Im here already.
N.C. State was the perfect fit.
That wasnt N.C. States only good stroke of luck in landing Rodon. The left-hander grew up a Miami Hurricanes fan.
I wanted to go to Miami, Rodon said. They never called.
And North Carolina, which has produced a string of high major league draft picks? The Tar Heels called with an offer a week after he committed to N.C. State. Did he consider it?
Not at all, Rodon said. No shot.
Turner completes package
While Rodon piqued the interest of scouts and ACC schools, Turner waited in south Florida for an ACC or SEC school to call. At first, no one did.
The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the 20th round in 2011, but he wanted to go to college. Florida Atlantic was his only offer and Turner, who is from nearby Lake Worth, Fla., was about to take the Owls deal before N.C. State assistant Chris Hart made an 11th-hour call.
I wanted to play in as big of a conference as I could because I wanted to prove some people wrong, Turner said.
As a freshman last season, Turner hit .336 and led the country with 57 stolen bases.
His sophomore season was interrupted for 10 games with a broken ankle, but he still has led the Wolfpack with a .378 batting average and 27 steals. He also is second on the team with seven home runs.
You have to have stars, said John Manuel, the editor-in-chief of Baseball America. Thats what N.C. State has in Rodon and Turner.
Manuel compared the Wolfpacks sophomore class, which also includes catcher Brett Austin, to North Carolinas 2003 recruiting class, which netted pitchers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard.
When Carolina got those two guys, it really changed their program, Manuel said. They broke through in their junior years and (coach) Mike Fox hasnt looked back since.
Thats the opportunity that N.C. State has with this group.
Seniors spur growth
Neither Rodon nor Turner is caught up in their own hype. Turner credits the seniors for the teams success. There are 10 seniors among the regular contributors, including four in the everyday lineup.
They know how to win, Turner said.
To his point, with Rice ahead 3-2 in the ninth inning of the first game of the Super Regional, it was Williams who manufactured the tying run. He walked and then stole second and advanced to third on a wild pickoff attempt. On Logan Ratledges safety squeeze, Williams slid cleanly under a tag even though the ball had beaten him to the plate.
In the second game against Rice, senior first baseman Tarran Senay capped a three-run ninth inning with a two-out double.
Senay singled in the 17th and scored on Williams double for a 5-4 win.
Senior relievers Ryan Wilkins and Grant Sasser kept Rice at bay during extra innings, with Ogburn adding five scoreless innings for the win.
We have a lot of seniors who have kept us on the same page and done whatever it takes, Williams said.
The senior class, which includes five players who have been in the program for four years, has seen each season last progressively longer.
The Wolfpack went 0-2 in the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 1-2 in 2011. It won the 2012 regional, at home, but lost to top-seeded Florida in two games in the Super Regional.
That ate at us all year, especially the way they did it, Ogburn said, in reference to the 9-8 loss in 10 innings that sent Gators to the CWS.
We knew we had most of our talent back and we knew we would be a year better.
Avent pulls even with UNC
At the heart of N.C. States breakthrough has been Avent, 57, whose energy and tenacity have been constants during his tenure.
His career at N.C. State can be split into two segments the six seasons before 2003 and the 11 since.
After six seasons, he was 64-76 in the ACC and on the verge of losing his dream job. But starting in 2003, Avent has led the Wolfpack to the NCAA tournament 10 times in 11 seasons and reached the Super Regional four times.
While North Carolina has emerged as a national power, going to the CWS six times in eight years, Avent has held his own against the Tar Heels. Since 03, Avent is 18-18 against the Tar Heels.
Avent is a self-described diehard N.C. State fan, who was a student during the mid-1970s when N.C. State-North Carolina was the ACCs rivalry.
He was unusually quiet when asked about the Tar Heels this week, but there is undoubtedly a part of him that is happy to see them as the first opponent in Omaha.
Ive enjoyed that rivalry for a long time, Avent said.
N.C. State and North Carolina already have met once this postseason. The Tar Heels won an 18-inning game, 2-1, during the ACC tournament in Durham.
The rivals will meet again Sunday in Omaha, which is appropriate for what has been an incredible season.
As Rodon said, Baseball is a crazy game.