Image credit: (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, S.C.—After last year’s disappointment, when North Carolina State was surprisingly left out of the NCAA Tournament, the Wolfpack on Friday were eager for their return to the road to Omaha in the Columbia Regional.
Coach Elliott Avent has led NC State for 26 seasons and has been a college assistant or head coach for 42 years. This is the 21st time he’s been a part of an NCAA Tournament team, including leading 20 times as head coach of the Wolfpack.
The experience has never lost its luster for Avent, 67.
“I don’t think I’ve ever spent a Christmas I didn’t enjoy it,” Avent said. “It might not be like it was when you’re 10 years old anymore, but I don’t think I ever woke up on a Christmas morning where I wasn’t excited, and I’ve never been to a regional where I wasn’t excited.
“As I told the players all year, I’ll be happy when we get there but if y’all miss it, I’ll be so crushed because my job is to get them to this moment and share this moment because until you get here you can’t really understand how special it is.”
NC State’s play Friday made the experience all the more special. The Wolfpack had a tough draw as the No. 3 seed in Columbia, tasked with taking on a Campbell team that felt like it was snubbed as a potential host and came in with a chip on its shoulder. The Camels didn’t need the extra motivation to reach a high level. They finished the regular season ranked No. 11 in the Top 25, won 44 games and doubled up as Big South Conference champions, winning both the regular season and tournament titles.
NC State simply took care of business at Founders Park, home of South Carolina. The Wolfpack jumped out to an early lead when LuJames Groover III hit a first-inning home run off righthander Cade Kuehler, a potential first-round draft pick, and they never looked back. NC State went on to win, 5-1, and advance in the winner’s bracket.
“I thought we played really well today,” Avent said. “I guess everybody knows what kind of ballclub Campbell is and how good they are and what kind of season they’re undertaking.”
Groover finished the day 2-for-5 with two home runs and three runs scored. Trevor Candelaria went 4-for-4 with a double and a home run. The duo keyed a strong offensive day for the Wolfpack.
Earlier this week, Groover wasn’t sure if he’d be at 100% this weekend. He missed a couple days of practice due to food poisoning and after being so sick, he had some concerns about whether there would be lingering effects.
“Sometimes that might be a factor, you just feel weak,” he said. “Once I was able to put some good swings on the ball, I was like, ‘Ok, when we get there, I know I’m ready.’
“I was able to come out here and put some good swings on some baseballs today.”
What stood out even more, however, was NC State’s pitching. The trio of Logan Whitaker, Rio Britton and Justin Lawson combined to hold Campbell to one run on 10 hits and three walks. The Camels came into the NCAA Tournament averaging 9.8 runs per game, the most in the country.
“The three pitchers were outstanding,” Avent said. “They complemented each other so well. To hold this ballclub to one run says a lot.”
NC State’s pitching wasn’t overwhelming but did a good job of filling up the strike zone and working around trouble. None of the Camels’ 10 hits went for extra bases and they went 4-for-19 with runners on base.
It wasn’t a perfect day for NC State, but it was about as much as the Wolfpack could have asked for to start the NCAA Tournament. Not only did they beat one of the best teams in the country with solid all-around baseball, they got some important experience. While NC State was in the College World Series just two years ago, the roster has almost completely turned over. Just two of the 13 players NC State used Friday were on the roster in 2021 (Whitaker and outfielder Noah Soles) and their combined NCAA Tournament experience was limited to a pinch-hit appearance for Soles in a blowout super regional loss at Arkansas.
While some of the new players got tournament experience with other schools before transferring, for many others Friday was the first time on this stage. Candelaria began his career at Davidson and played four years for the Wildcats before coming to NC State as a graduate transfer.
“Coming to a regional was something I didn’t have the privilege of doing the first four years at Davidson,” Candelaria said. “It’s something that we obviously worked toward every year. That was our goal this year. Even from the beginning it wasn’t win a national championship, it was get to regionals, get to the playoffs because anything can happen if you get to the playoffs.
“I think we showed that today. It’s the beginning of a new season. It feels like a very big privilege to be here. We don’t take it lightly.”