Did the ACC baseball tournament format influence decisions made by NC State's Elliott Avent?
Brock Deatherage can’t find the right words to explain N.C. State’s season.
“There’s just something about this year that gives everybody a different feeling,” Deatherage, a senior right fielder, said.
Short of a thesaurus, senior pitcher Brian Brown can’t help, either.
“I don’t know what it is,” said Brown, the ACC pitcher of the year. “We just have a different vibe.”
Different is good for the Wolfpack (40-15), which opened pool play in the ACC tournament on Thursday with a 4-2 loss to Virginia and will face Florida State on Friday night for a chance to advance to the semifinals.
Different is what N.C. State wants, especially in the postseason. Nobody understands that better than the group of seven seniors who have lived through one tournament heartbreak after another.
There was the collapse at TCU in the 2015 NCAA tournament, the water-logged close call to Coastal Carolina (the eventual national champion ) in 2016 and just a “normal” regional loss at Kentucky last year.
A loss in the ACC championship game here in Durham to FSU in 2015 wasn’t easy, either, nor a loss to Miami here in 2016.
Deatherage, Brown, Stephen Pitarra, Johnny Piedmonte, Joe O’Donnell, Josh McLain and Shane Shepard lived through them all.
“There are a lot of us who have been together for a long time,” Deatherage said. “If you think about it, we’ve been through a lot.”
Those painful experiences have taught this veteran group, which has been bolstered by the additions of freshman catcher Patrick Bailey and freshman second baseman J.T. Jarrett, how to be resilient.
Four times in ACC play this season, N.C. State lost the first game of a series only to respond with wins in the next games. Perhaps even more impressive, the Wolfpack lost two crushing games at Florida State last weekend — both in extra innings in walk-off fashion — but rebounded to win the final game of the series.
“When you’ve been through everything, you just know how to handle it better,” Brown said. “We know how to bounce back after losses and how to keep level on the wins. It’s just our mindset.”
The senior group has also dealt with more than baseball setbacks. Piedmonte, a sixth-year senior, injured his back in a car accident before his second season and has been pitching with pain ever since.
He has labored through a frustrating final season with a 5-3 record and 4.50 earned run average.
“It has been difficult, not being able to help the team the way I know I can,” Piedmonte said.
His own frustrations haven’t prevented Piedmonte from enjoying the team’s success and Brown’s, in particular. The senior lefty pitcher compiled a 6-1 record with a 2.37 ERA.
Before Brown’s freshman season in 2015, his mother, Debra, passed away from cancer. He nearly took the year off. Instead, he has been a mainstay on the mound for four years.
“I’m just really proud for him,” Piedmonte said. “He has had such a great season for his final season.”
Which has made the team success this season all the more special. The Wolfpack has won 40 games in the regular season for only the second time in 24 years and matched a school record with 19 ACC wins.
“We all have an emotional connection to each other,” Piedmonte said. “We’ve all been there for each other for a major part of our lives.”
Unlike last year, or in 2015, the team hasn’t had to worry about the NCAA tournament bubble. With a win, or two, in Durham this week, the Wolfpack will likely host the regional round. If it wins its first ACC title since 1992, it could wind up a national seed when the tournament pairings are announced on Monday.
But that’s not on the team’s radar yet. It has gotten this far, and won this many games, but keeping its focus, regardless of the circumstance.
“We don’t think about anything that happens previous or what’s going to happen in the future,” Brown said. “We just play for each other.”
And that has made this N.C. State team different. Now the players want to write a different ending.