Three weeks removed from a copperhead bite on his right ankle and mostly recovered, N.C. State baseball coach Elliott Avent was back in a walking boot and on crutches Thursday, residual damage from the venom and a steep staircase having conspired to either sprain or break the ankle.
In the space of a few days, Avent went from feeling pretty good to being a little concerned again.
Which is exactly how N.C. State’s emotions trended from Sunday to Monday, from worrying about whether the Wolfpack had done enough to host in the NCAA tournament, to finding out Sunday night that Doak Field would indeed host, to learning Monday that they faced what may be the toughest of all 16 regionals.
The visitors are Coastal Carolina, perhaps the best of the No. 2 seeds; St. Mary’s, perhaps the hottest of the No. 3 seeds; and Navy, a No. 4 seed but with a starting pitcher who ranks among the best in the country and will presumably face the Wolfpack on Friday night.
So some really good news followed by some more worrisome news.
It’s almost like the NCAA committee decided N.C. State could host, but it wasn’t going to make it easy on the Wolfpack.
“It’s going to be a great challenge, but that’s what our guys have done all year,” Avent said. “You don’t get through the ACC or our nonconference schedule – I told our guys at the start of the year, ‘I just gave you all the toughest schedule in the country.’ … These guys have responded all year long to whatever has been thrown their way.”
Coastal Carolina was under serious contention to host a regional itself, having won 13 of its final 14 games while holding its own against tougher competition – including a 13-10 loss to N.C. State in February, Coastal went 4-5 against the ACC and 9-8 against NCAA tournament teams. Coastal’s RPI was better than five of the teams picked to host regionals.
St. Mary’s, making its first-ever NCAA appearance, has won seven of its past eight and went 7-6 against tournament teams. And first, the Wolfpack will have to get past Navy ace Luke Gillingham, the two-time Patriot League pitcher of the year with four shutouts and eight complete games in 13 starts to go with a 1.96 ERA.
“He’s known as ‘that pitcher,’ ” Avent said. “He’s obviously very good.”
It’s all a lot stiffer than the other half of this super regional, where Louisiana State hosts Rice, Southeastern Louisiana and Utah Valley.
Still, this is nothing new for the Wolfpack, which played that difficult nonconference schedule, finished fifth in the ACC and was rewarded for a top-10 RPI with this opportunity to host.
“It’s definitely prepared us,” N.C. State catcher Andrew Knizner said. “We’ve played some quality teams throughout the year, conference and nonconference. It kind of shows us we can compete with the best in the country, and we can win those games.”
It won’t be easy, but it hasn’t been easy for N.C. State all season. The Wolfpack will be at home in familiar surroundings. The rest of it will be pretty familiar, too.
Luke DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock