Triangle Rivalry Takes On National Scope

For 11 gripping innings, North Carolina and North Carolina State wrestled to a scoreless tie, and the 10,229 baseball-loving souls crammed into Greensboro’s NewBridge Bank Park hung on every pitch.

It was May 26, 2012, and it was a watershed moment for America’s Pastime in the Old North State.

Never before had so many people witnessed a college baseball game in North Carolina—not even close. The previous record was 6,956, set during an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament game between UNC and Clemson in Durham in 2009. The previous record for an ACC tournament game in any state was 8,503, set in South Carolina in 1989.

North Carolina is, first and foremost, a basketball state, just as the ACC’s national reputation is that of a basketball conference. Traditionally, sports fans in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle don’t turn their attention to baseball until after the hoops tournament ends in April, and they never show up for college baseball games in droves like fans do in the Deep South, Texas or South Carolina.

But UNC has built a baseball powerhouse under Mike Fox, reaching the College World Series five times in the past seven years and raising the sport’s profile in the region. N.C. State has been consistently good under Elliott Avent, making 12 regionals in 16 years, but the Wolfpack made a sudden jump from good to great last year, and fans took notice.

So college baseball had been gaining momentum for years in North Carolina, but it reached a crescendo last May 26, when two rivals with legitimate national title aspirations met on a beautiful Saturday night in the final game of ACC tournament pool play. The atmosphere was electric, a product of the nearly even blending of light blue shirts with red shirts throughout the stadium.

And the game was worthy of the moment.

N.C. State’s hometown ace, Carlos Rodon, had already created a buzz in Raleigh during a season that earned him national Freshman of the Year and first-team All-America honors. He saved his best for that classic against the Tar Heels, striking out a career-high 12 over nine innings of four-hit, shutout ball.

“That atmosphere against Carolina was unbelievable. I wish we could play under that every game,” Rodon recalled. “That was crazy—it was insane. I’ve never played in a game like that. Sometimes when I’m pitching I don’t notice it, then you hear the crowd going crazy, and it was so loud, you just get chills.”

North Carolina’s own talented freshman, Benton Moss, stood toe-to-toe with Rodon into the sixth, allowing just two hits. Then UNC’s stellar bullpen took over and kept the Wolfpack off the scoreboard through the 12th, when the Tar Heels finally broke through with four runs to secure a 4-0 win.

Fans of both teams filed out feeling fulfilled and exhilarated, judging by the buzz that persisted all the way into the parking lot. It was a sublime college baseball experience—and given the strength of these two programs, there is reason to believe that evening in May was not the pinnacle for the sport in North Carolina, but simply the beginning of a new golden age.

“We’re always going to be in the shadow here of college basketball—we just are. And that’s OK,” Fox said. “I do think it’s exciting when 10,000 people can go to Greensboro to watch State and Carolina play a baseball game. Then you hope that out of those 10,000 people, it swells to even more than that by word of mouth—people talking about what a good game it was, how talented the players were on the field.”

Keep It Going Downhill

The talent on the field, of course, is the driving force behind college baseball’s surge in the Triangle. The Tar Heels and Wolfpack have two of the most loaded rosters in the nation this year, and they enter the season ranked No. 1 and No. 8, respectively, in the Baseball America Top 25.

For North Carolina, 2013 figures to be simply the continuation of a remarkable run of excellence that began in 2006. Prior to that season, the Tar Heels hadn’t been to Omaha since 1989, though they had been consistently solid—much like the Wolfpack has been in the last decade.

But in 2006, UNC’s top-ranked 2003 recruiting class reached maturation, as future big leaguers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard led the Tar Heels all the way to the College World Series Finals. That class raised the bar for UNC, making it easier to attract more marquee players—like righthanders Alex White and Matt Harvey—in subsequent recruiting classes. Less heralded recruits Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager would become college superstars en route to the big leagues, strengthening UNC’s brand along the way.

But for all their five trips to Omaha and two appearances in the Finals, the Tar Heels have never been BA’s preseason No. 1 until now. Just as Miller, Bard, Josh Horton, Robert Woodard and others handed the torch to Ackley, Seager and White, so too did Harvey, Levi Michael and their teammates hand off to Colin Moran and Kent Emanuel—the pillars of UNC’s current junior class.

Moran earned national Freshman of the Year honors in 2011, when he helped a UNC team that began the season unranked get back to Omaha. Though he grew up in New York, Moran is well versed in the history of UNC baseball, because his uncle is former UNC great B.J. Surhoff, and his older brother Brian was a star reliever for the Tar Heels from 2007-09. By the time the younger Moran arrived in Chapel Hill, the standards for the program had changed dramatically from where they were a decade earlier.

“I definitely think there’s a high expectation to win, and an expectation to get to Omaha,” Moran said. “Obviously that’s everybody’s goal. Having a chance to watch my brother, for however many years they were in that streak, you grow up watching them on TV going to Omaha, and it builds expectations a little bit.”

Which made last year’s stunning loss to St. John’s in the Chapel Hill Regional even more difficult to digest. Emanuel, the ace lefthander, fronted one of the nation’s best pitching staffs in 2012, featuring three weekend starters who posted sub-2.00 ERAs. The Tar Heels survived Moran’s broken hand—suffered when he vented his frustration by punching a door during the first game of the N.C. State series—and headed into the postseason as one of the leading contenders for the national title.

But in UNC’s second game of the regional, a plucky, talented St. John’s team rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth against All-American closer Michael Morin to send the Tar Heels into the loser’s bracket. The Red Storm got the better of UNC’s vaunted bullpen again a day later to send the top seed packing.

“I definitely think it was a good year last year, but it was kind of a bitter ending,” Moran said. “All the returning players, you can definitely sense that maybe there’s a little extra motivation, not that there already wasn’t motivation. I think obviously last year was a real good team, but this is definitely the most talented team that I’ve been on since I’ve been here. It’s really hard-working.”

All three weekend starters are back, headlining perhaps the nation’s deepest pitching staff. The lineup is experienced and figures to be more potent than it was a year ago. The next wave of UNC stars—led by freshmen Landon Lassiter and Skye Bolt—has arrived and is expected to bolster the offense as well as the defense. And in the long term, this freshman class looks equal to the challenge of maintaining UNC’s high standards after Moran, Emanuel and co. are gone.

“We all know recruiting’s the name of the game. You’re not going to win it without talented players—you’re just not going to do it consistently,” Fox said. “We’ve been fortunate in that regard; coach (Scott) Jackson and coach (Scott) Forbes have worked tirelessly at that end. We’ll see with this freshman class, two years from now, if I’m able to speak in that regard with those guys like we’re talking with Emanuel and Moran and those guys.”

Creating New Momentum

Without question, North Carolina State fielded the nation’s best group of freshmen last year, and that class has a chance to impact the program in a way comparable to how Miller and Bard’s class affected UNC. Rodon, infielder Trea Turner and outfielder Jake Fincher all earned freshman All-America honors last year. Catcher Brett Austin, an unsigned supplemental first-round pick out of high school, is just scratching the surface of his ability, and the same can be said for flame-throwing righthander Logan Jernigan. And versatile second baseman/outfielder Logan Ratledge emerged as another key building block last year, giving that class depth as well as star power.

“I think we’ve had a really, really good program for a number of years, but I think these core players we have that made up last year’s recruiting class, they elevate the program, and I think they stabilize the program,” Avent said. “They give you that stabilization that gives you the sense we’ll be good for a long time to come. The people they’ve attracted to play with them, the recruiting class of freshmen that came in this year, the class we have next year, we feel like might be a product of how this class elevated the program a little bit.”

Rodon’s burning desire to be great is part of what makes him great, and he’s keenly aware of his opportunity to leave his mark at N.C. State. That’s one of the reasons the native of nearby Holly Springs, N.C., chose the Wolfpack.

“I took one visit to Carolina, and I thought it was a nice school, but I thought it was a little too much for me,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere and hopefully help improve a program. My senior year I thought, ‘Hopefully I can make this program better.’ I like being the underdog, because it’s a challenge. People are like, ‘You can’t do that—you can’t show up and make that program better.’ I didn’t make us better; it took all 35 of us last year, and the bullpen catchers and equipment managers, everyone, to make us that successful.”

Avent said he recognized halfway through the season that his team had special chemistry. Suddenly, his players figured out how good they were, and they started to believe they could win every time they took the field.

As N.C. State started reeling off wins, baseball became a featured attraction in Raleigh. Fans flocked to Doak Field to see Rodon dominate hitters with his blazing fastball and devastating slider. They were electrified by Turner’s impossible speed, which helped him lead the nation with 57 stolen bases in 61 tries. That duo helped make N.C. State one of most fun teams to watch in college baseball last year.

“I myself am on Twitter, and I see a lot of people tweeting at our baseball account and how excited they are,” said Turner, who moves from third base to shortstop as a sophomore. “It gives us more motivation, because we really haven’t had a lot of fan support in the past. Now I think they’re buying into what we’re doing.”

The Wolfpack went 19-11 in the ACC and easily earned a home regional, which it won by running through the loser’s bracket and beating red-hot Vanderbilt in back-to-back thrillers. That earned N.C. State a trip to Gainesville to take on No. 1 national seed Florida in super regionals. The older Gators won the series, but the Wolfpack fought hard in a back-and-forth second game, falling 9-8 in 10 innings.

“That burns real deep, especially to lose to a team that, to me, isn’t that much better than us,” Rodon said. “Obviously their pitching is amazing, but when we were on that field, it didn’t seem that different at all. They’re not as good as they thought they were, but they’re obviously a great team. I’ve never been in that situation before. Now when our whole team gets in that situation again, hopefully we can be successful. Now all the freshmen, we know what it’s like, what to expect.”

N.C. State has now made three trips to super regionals since 2003, but it has been to Omaha only once in its history—way back in 1968. Rodon, Turner and Avent know how much it would mean for the program to break through to the CWS this year.

“They say the hardest thing to do is to get there the first time,” Avent said.

But once a program breaks down the door, it becomes easier to return in following seasons, as North Carolina can attest. The Tar Heels have become Omaha regulars, to the point that their absence last year raised eyebrows.

“It is funny how things have changed, and of course that’s what you want,” Fox said. “People come up to you and say, ‘Gosh, I was expecting to see y’all in Omaha.’ Well, so were we. But that’s OK; that’s why you do so much work and put this time and effort in, is you want these expectations.”

This time around, the Tar Heels and Wolfpack enter the season with similar expectations—and that has raised the stakes in this rivalry. The showdown in Greensboro might have been a classic, but just wait for the encore, with the ACC Tournament scheduled for Durham Bulls Athletic Park, nearly halfway between the geographic rivals.

“It’s funny, because being from Florida I didn’t really know too much about either N.C. State or Carolina before I got here,” Turner said. “Now that I’m here, it’s like you just don’t like them because they’re wearing Carolina stuff. But after the ACC tournament game when they beat us, a lot of their guys were very nice going through the (handshake) lines.

“But it’s getting a little crazy now that we’re both top teams, and it means more.”