For the sixth time since its last ACC baseball championship, now 23 long years ago, N.C. State played for the title and lost, to the dismay of the red-clad crowds who swarmed Durham Bulls Athletic Park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon hoping to see history.
The Wolfpack hadn’t been in this position since 2010, not even in 2013 and certainly not last year. But the feeling while Florida State was celebrating a 6-2 victory and a sixth ACC title wasn’t that of missed opportunity or disappointment, although there was certainly some of that.
N.C. State came so far, so fast at the end of this season, culminating in a 3-0 run through pool play in Durham that included wins over Notre Dame and Miami, that falling short didn’t sting like it might have otherwise.
“This weekend, it kind of showed everybody on the team that we could win the tight games,” N.C. State catcher Andrew Knizner said. “When we play with confidence, we can compete with anybody in the country – beating Miami, who’s top five or whatever they are. It gives us confidence going into a regional that we can play with the best teams in the country.”
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No, this team still feels pretty good about things heading into the NCAA tournament, and for good reason despite Sunday’s loss. Whatever sour taste was left from last season, the bitter sting of what might have been, has been washed away. Down the stretch, this team has been nothing but sweet.
In 2015, particularly over the past month, N.C. State has been everything it wasn’t in 2014. That team openly embraced expectations it never came close to meeting. This team shattered any expectations placed upon it long ago.
A year ago, blessed with first-round talent like Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner, talking a big game about going back to Omaha, N.C. State was all under: underwhelming, underachieving, underperforming. This team is all over: overwhelming, overachieving, overstaying its postseason welcome already.
“We thought this would happen. I thought this would happen,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “But you always want your thoughts to come realistic, to come true. We’ve played better this year the bigger the stage, the bigger the crowd, the more important the situation.”
“Last year’s team was probably a little better than y’all remember,” Avent said Wednesday, but this year’s team will already be remembered far more fondly, no matter what happens next.
That much was apparent Sunday, with a championship-game-record crowd of 9,759, almost all of that rooting for the nominal visiting team. (The ACC tournament record is still the 11,392 for N.C. State-North Carolina in 2013.)
“I think (N.C. State fans) get closer to certain types of ballclubs,” Avent said. “I know in basketball this year, I got really close to that ballclub the way they played basketball. We’re still N.C. State and we’re still going to support them, but sometimes you get drawn to a certain connection to a club for how hard they play and the energy they play with. I think our fans got drawn to this ballclub.”
Certainly N.C. State won over some fans as it cruised through the tournament, an authoritative win over Notre Dame on Thursday followed by a bizarre, 12th-inning, walk-off double-and-score-on-a-throwing-error to beat pool favorite Miami on Friday. That made Saturday’s win over Virginia moot for championship purposes, if still important for N.C. State’s psyche.
“If we can take a couple lessons from this week, if we can get a little better, hopefully we’ll be celebrating a (regional) championship next Sunday instead of being on this end,” Avent said.
For all of N.C. State’s improvement, Florida State was still a better team, and a three-run home run by John Sansone in the third Sunday turned out to be all the Seminoles needed, leaving N.C. State with only the consolation of a postseason run that was all the more sweeter for being unexpected, even if it fell one game short of history.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947