Confident NC State readies for another Omaha run

jgiglio@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2014 

— If there’s a prize for winning the press conference, N.C. State’s baseball team wrapped that up Friday.

Coach Elliott Avent said his returning stars, who led the Wolfpack to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., last June, were competitive. He had no idea that competition would spill over to a contest of “Who’s the most quotable?”

A sampling from Friday’s kickoff to a season that promises to be one of the most interesting in school history, in any sport:

Shortstop Trea Turner: “Last year, we wanted to make it (to Omaha). This year we want to win.”

Catcher Brett Austin: “We deserve the hype and I hope we live up to it.”

Pitcher Carlos Rodon: “I think it’s safe to say we are a baseball school.”

Even Avent, whose team is coming off a school-record 50 wins, threw a little kindling onto the expectation fire for the Wolfpack, which enters the season ranked No. 5 in the country by Baseball America:

“If we get (to Omaha), there could be a parade in Raleigh some time in July.”

So much for “one game at a time” or slow-playing the success from 2013. It’s clear, with the start of the season six days away, the Wolfpack is not interested in second place.

There is a reason for optimism, starting with juniors Rodon and Turner, who are two of the top prospects for the Major League Baseball draft.

With Rodon, the rare left-handed power pitcher, and Turner, the speedy shortstop, N.C. State has made progress in each of its first two seasons. In 2012, the Wolfpack advanced to the Super Regional but was eliminated by Florida. Last year, it broke through with a Super Regional win against Rice and reached the CWS for the first time since 1968.

But after beating North Carolina in the first game in Omaha, the Wolfpack lost 2-1 to eventual champion UCLA and then was eliminated by UNC.

“We have a bitter taste after last year, we weren’t satisfied,” Austin said.

There is a lot of baseball to be played before the Wolfpack can get back to where it left off. The ACC is stacked with six ranked teams, including preseason No. 1 Virginia.

In addition to the trio of Rodon, Turner and Austin, Avent will have regular starters Jake Fincher (center field), Logan Ratledge (second base) and Jake Armstrong (left field) and pitchers Brad Stone and Logan Jernigan back from last year’s 50-16 club.

The rest of the lineup will comprisea mix of freshmen and transfers. Avent singled out third baseman Andrew Kniznerand first baseman Kyle Cavanaugh as two freshmen who could help. Junior college outfielder Bubby Riley will be counted on as well.

The real concern for the Wolfpack will be in the bullpen. Chris Overman, Grant Sasser and Josh Easley are gone from last year’s group. Avent hopes D.J. Thomas and Andrew Woeck will be able to stabilize the new group, which should get a boost from Temple transfers Eric and Patrick Peterson.

If the bullpen falters, Turner, who led the team in batting (.368 average) joked he could throwa few innings.

“I think we’ll be just fine, I don’t think it will be as bad as anybody thinks it will be,” Turner said.

Avent has his concerns about the bullpen, especially early against a challenging nonconference schedule. The Wolfpack opens up on the road with a 3-game series at UC Santa Barbara beginnning Feb. 14 and will also host a series against Appalachian State and one game with Michigan. There’s an Omaha rematch with UCLA on March 1 in Cary, too.

There is no guarantee N.C. State will match last year’s success, but Rodon, who went 10-3 last year, said he would consider this season a failure if it didn’t end with another trip to the CWS.

Normally, teams would steer the conversation away from such big talk, not this group.

“Nobody is going to put bigger expectations on us than us,” Turner said. “We all believe in it.”

The first pitch of the season hasn’t been thrown, but the bar has already been set at the highest point possible.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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