This was such a big deal, there was an unusual and honored guest at the postgame festivities. That isn’t uncommon, but such guests aren’t usually on a leash.
Mickey Mantle, 13, a cancer survivor, stood at the back of the press conference, panting, late Sunday night while her owner, N.C. State coach Elliott Avent, basked in the afterglow of a 17-inning victory that sent the Wolfpack through to the College World Series. When Avent talked about being like a father to his players, he couldn’t omit mention of his dog, Mickey, who was at that moment waiting patiently for him to finish.
This was a big deal – a Big Deal – for a school that’s been a little short on big deals in recent years.
Chuck Amato and Tom O’Brien delivered upgraded facilities, winning seasons, Russell Wilson and a few mid-tier bowls in football, but never an ACC title or a BCS berth.
The men’s basketball team made the regional semifinals two years ago under Mark Gottfried, making up for the entire Sidney Lowe era in one season, but underachieved last season and faces what might be a rebuilding process this year.
Women’s basketball went on one last tournament run under the late Kay Yow in 2007, but its only Final Four was in 1998. The baseball team hadn’t made it to Omaha since 1968. Rifle and gymnastics won conference titles this year and softball won an ACC championship, but if it weren’t for the Basspack and its three national titles …
But baseball has crossed the Rubicon. Baseball is at that final stage, where a national title is on the line. Baseball is setting the tone for an entire athletic program.
“This just fuels the fire for more of the same,” N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow said Monday. “There’s a great sense of pride among all the teams and coaches for what just happened in baseball. I’m walking in the hallways this morning, and people are just smiling.”
In both the degree of accomplishment and the manner in which it has been accomplished – salvaging a season that was at one point headed the wrong way to become one of the hottest teams in college baseball, 5-0 in the NCAA tournament – this N.C. State baseball team has captivated the attention of the Wolfpack fan base.
Sunday night was a perfect example. A night after N.C. State rallied in the bottom of the ninth for a walk-off win over Rice, the Wolfpack scored three runs in the top of the ninth to force extra innings before enduring a 77-minute rain delay in the 12th and finally winning, 5-4, in the 17th.
Afterward, as Avent and members of the 1968 team and countless celebrating others crossed the street into the tennis center for the press conference, he flagged down Yow for an emergency conclave.
“I figured he wanted to talk about the charter flight or something,” Yow said. “He said, ‘Have you met my dog?’ ”
With Yow’s intercession, security allowed the dog into the building.
It was a big night for N.C. State and a big night for Avent, the kind of night that can energize an entire athletic department, an entire school. The kind of night you want to make sure your dog can enjoy, too.