Luke DeCock

Another college baseball season ends in pain, disbelief – DeCock

Connor Heady of the Kentucky Wildcats tags out Will Wilson of the N.C. State Wolfpack during a rundown in the final game of the Lexington NCAA Regional on Monday.
Connor Heady of the Kentucky Wildcats tags out Will Wilson of the N.C. State Wolfpack during a rundown in the final game of the Lexington NCAA Regional on Monday. Lexington Herald Leader

It’s hard to say what happened to N.C. State as Monday turned into Tuesday was more painful than either of the previous two regional losses, but only because those two were so extraordinarily, abnormally tortuous. For any other team, gift-wrapping six runs on only two hits over the final three innings of a 10-5 loss would be nightmare fuel. For N.C. State, it’s just more of the same.

Sunday, N.C. State had an early two-run lead on Kentucky with a chance to close out the Wildcats. Monday, the Wolfpack led 5-4 through six. In both cases, the outcome was the same: pain.

And so another college baseball season ends in disappointment, frustration and disbelief for both N.C. State and North Carolina, the Wolfpack losing in a regional in belief-defying fashion for the third straight year, North Carolina upset at home as the No. 2 national seed by Davidson, a school making its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.

It’s officially a trend, and it’s easy to identify the starting point.

When North Carolina and N.C. State both made the College World Series in 2013, playing twice in Omaha, it seemed like the logical capstone to what had become an annual Triangle spring sensation, the two rivals drawing capacity crowds to wherever they might play.

As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, sometimes you can look back and see the high-water mark of where a wave crested. That week in Omaha is where both teams peaked. The four postseasons since have been excruciating for both teams, nightmarish conclusions to promising seasons.

The Wolfpack feels it most acutely, with Monday’s loss at Kentucky actually the least painful exit for this junior class, not that it’s any consolation to a group that has accomplished so much and been left with so little at the end.

The 2014 team, with stars Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner, didn’t even make the NCAA tournament. A year later, the Wolfpack somehow blew an 8-1 eighth-inning lead at Texas Christian. Last year, N.C. State was one strike away from a super regional but instead watched Coastal Carolina win that game at Doak Field and, eventually, the national title.

Nor have the Tar Heels been immune: In the four-year period ending in that College World Series, North Carolina won 17 games in the NCAA tournament. In the four years since, the Tar Heels have won only three, missing the tournament in consecutive years for the first time in almost 20 years – the last team left out of the field last year.

This year’s exit as the No. 2 national seed, losing twice to the No. 4 seed in their regional, was even more shocking than the 2012 home upset to St. John’s as the No. 6 national seed, the only two times the Tar Heels have failed to advance when hosting a regional since 1983.

You might have to go all the way back to that era, a year later in 1984, when many of the same players – Scott Bankhead, Jeff Hubbard, B.J. Surhoff, Walt Weiss – set what was then a school record with 44 wins but failed to make it to Omaha to find a comparable disappointment. That team had to play in Starkville, Miss., despite being one of five national feeds.

Those were good times in Omaha in 2013 for both teams, not to mention college basenball fans. They’ve only been tough times since.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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