Under normal circumstances, N.C. State and North Carolina would love to get caught up in the fanfare of their baseball rivalry.
But each side has more pressing concerns as they prepare for the first of three games at N.C. State’s Doak Field on Thursday.
The Wolfpack (32-17, 13-12 ACC) has lost six of its past seven ACC games and is trying to get back into a regular routine after a hectic week saw coach Elliott Avent miss a series at Louisville after being bitten by a copperhead snake.
“As much as the rivalry is a big deal, it’s more important for us to play our game and get back on track,” N.C. State junior Preston Palmeiro said.
The Tar Heels (33-19, 12-15 ACC), coming off of an important ACC series win over Notre Dame, are trying to hold onto their spot in the ACC championship next week in Durham.
Ten teams, out of the 14, make the conference championship with the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds placed in a play-in game to get into the pool-play format.
UNC would be the No. 9 seed if the tournament started today but there are eight teams separated by two games in the win column for six tournament spots.
Conference winning percentage is the first tiebreaker, followed by head-to-head results. Since not all teams play the same number of ACC games due to weather-related cancellations, the math can get a little messy.
The Heels would prefer to focus on the Wolfpack, rather than the series’ meaning for the postseason.
“We try not to think too much about the standings and stuff like that but obviously it’s there,” UNC sophomore Zack Gahagan said. “But it’s N.C. State and we’re going to bring what we’ve got. And it’s going to be hostile but I think it’s going to be a great series.”
The rivalry hit a peak in 2013 when the teams met twice in the College World Series and once, in an epic 18-inning game, in the ACC tournament.
But since then, the teams have only met four times – once in the play-in round of the ACC tournament in 2014 and three times last year in Chapel Hill.
N.C. State hasn’t hosted UNC since 2013, when the two teams split a pair of games in late April.
There are few things Avent, in his 20th season, enjoys more than playing UNC but he has been preoccupied. Last Wednesday, he got bit by a snake out of front of his house while walking his dog.
It was the first time in Avent’s career he missed a game. He said watching his team from Raleigh was excruciating.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve done professionally,” Avent said.
He actually bought a plane ticket to Louisville for last Saturday’s game but decided to heed his doctor’s advice and stay home.
Avent returned to practice on Monday and said he has been overwhelmed by the support from fans and other league coaches and administrators.
When David Thompson texts you, that’s when you know you got bit by the good snake, you know what I’m saying?
NC State coach Elliott Avent
One text, from N.C. State basketball legend David Thompson, meant the most to Avent, a lifelong Wolfpack fan.
“When David Thompson texts you, that’s when you know you got bit by the good snake, you know what I’m saying?” Avent said. “Because David Thompson’s everything about this university. That really made my day when DT texted me.”
Now Avent would like to get back in the win column and avoid the play-in round next week in Durham.
After a 12-2 win over Duke on April 30, N.C. State was 12-6 in the league and within striking distance of the division leaders.
The Wolfpack has won once since, dropping the next game to Duke, two of three at Clemson and all three at Louisville. N.C. State is currently in position to be the fifth seed for the ACC tournament but could drop down into the play-in round if it gets swept by the Tar Heels.
N.C. State catcher Andrew Knizner pointed out the schedule has been difficult for the Wolfpack, which played both the Tigers and Cardinals on the road.
And both Louisville and Clemson are ranked in the top 15 of the RPI (so is UNC at No. 14).
“Sometimes that’s how baseball goes,” Knizner said. “You don’t get everything going your way all the time. We’ve had a bunch of winning streaks. Now, we’re on a losing skid and the key is to bounce back as fast as you can.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio