Chance Shepherd remembers. The N.C. State senior was around in 2013, the last time North Carolina visited Doak Field. The Wolfpack went to Chapel Hill last year, and the teams met once in the ACC baseball tournament in 2014, but a rivalry that reached blast-furnace intensity three years ago merely sizzles today.
“They were the best team in the country the last time we played them,” Shepherd said. “It’s always nice playing them. I grew up a State fan, so you gotta love playing against those guys.”
North Carolina isn’t the best team in the country these days, but that takes nothing away from the Wolfpack’s first series win over the Tar Heels since 2011, completed with a 10-1 win Saturday to clinch the fifth seed in next week’s ACC tournament while helping keep North Carolina out.
It’s probably a little early to say the balance of baseball power in the Triangle is shifting from North Carolina to N.C. State – Mike Fox’s resume is more than strong enough to absorb a couple of down seasons – but since that magical 2013 season when they met in Omaha, the gap between the two programs has narrowed.
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“I don’t know about that,” Shepherd said. “They’ve got some great arms over there. That’s a good team. I think we’re every bit as good and we definitely belong on the field with them.”
What strange days these are for North Carolina, not so long removed from six College World Series appearances in eight seasons, now out of the ACC tournament entirely after Saturday’s loss and a pair of Boston College wins at Georgia Tech later Saturday. The Tar Heels will be in Chapel Hill next week instead of Durham, a year after they missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
“It sucks but it is what it is,” North Carolina outfielder Adam Pate said. “You just play it by ear and keep chipping away, keep working in the weight room and on the field, doing what you can and waiting for your name to be called in the ACC tournament or then a regional, and then you’re ready to go.”
The Tar Heels also missed the ACC tournament in 2010, but still found their way into the NCAA tournament. That remains possible, although these circumstances would have seemed improbable when North Carolina was 20-4 at the end of March with a home sweep of Oklahoma State. The Tar Heels are 14-17 since, going W-L-W-L throughout May, leaving Fox bitterly pessimistic about his team’s NCAA hopes.
“I wouldn’t think our chances are very good,” Fox said.
Without mentioning North Carolina by name, N.C. State coach Elliott Avent filed a supporting brief: “Any team that’s in that tournament, and probably a team that’s going to get left out, probably deserves an NCAA bid. That’s how many good teams there are in this league.”
That’s not an issue for N.C. State, which is comfortably in the field but needed some positive momentum of its own after road trips to Clemson (1-2) and Louisville (0-3). Taking two of three from North Carolina not only restores that momentum, but sends the Wolfpack into the tournament as the fifth seed – not that Avent’s ready to start thinking about that yet.
“I don’t know what I’m going to have for dinner tonight,” Avent said. “Only thing I know is I’m having a Bud Light. Past that I can’t tell you.”
This may not have been a vintage North Carolina team, but a win over the Tar Heels is still something for the Wolfpack to savor, under any circumstances.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock