The road to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., runs directly through North Carolina this year, although it took a slight detour to get back on track for one of the three state teams advancing to the Super Regional round.
While North Carolina and Duke made it look easy by sweeping their respective regionals, East Carolina had to advance through the loser’s bracket after dropping its opening game to fourth-seeded Quinnipiac.
Inspired by a raucous home crowd at Clark-LeClair Stadium, the Pirates defied the odds by eliminating fading NC State, then beating Quinnipiac in a Sunday rematch before advancing with a pair of impressive victories against Campbell on Monday.
By winning its region, ECU (47-16) advances into a best-of-three Super Regional series at ACC regular season champion Louisville starting on Friday.
“I think it’s 7.5 percent of teams that win a regional after losing their first game,” Pirates coach Cliff Godwin said.
Catcher Jake Washer was instrumental in leading the comeback with four home runs in the four straight wins over two days to earn regional MVP honors. Left-hander Jake Agnos, two-way workhorse Alec Burleson and a deep pitching staff took care of the rest as ECU won an NCAA regional for the fifth time in school history.
It’s an accomplishment Godwin said his team never could have executed without an assist from its passionate fans.
“Everybody is pitching on fumes,” he said. “The crowd was amazing. I don’t think our guys could have gotten through it these past two days without the crowd.”
UNC and Duke didn’t have to work nearly as hard to advance.
The Tar Heels (45-17) followed a similar pattern to that of their ACC Tournament championship by squeaking out a walk-off win under unusual circumstances in its opening game before getting stronger with each subsequent effort.
Trailing UNC Wilmington by a run going to the bottom of the ninth, UNC tied its opener on a solo homer by ACC Rookie of the Year Aaron Sabato, then won it when the Seahawks threw the ball away on a botched suicide squeeze attempt.
Coach Mike Fox’s team then beat Liberty 16-1 and Tennessee 5-3 to earn a Super Regional date against Auburn at Boshamer Stadium this weekend.
“We have come a long way,” Fox said afterward. “Everybody goes back to the two State losses (in the final regular season series), but we started 0-4 in the league. We’ve got a good group, and they just keep fighting and believing.”
Duke (34-25) also kept believing when many pretournament projections had it out of the 64-team NCAA regional field.
But the Blue Devils finished the regular season strong and earned the No. 3 seed in the Morgantown, W.Va., Regional. There, they proved they belonged by parlaying strong pitching performances by Ben Gross, Bryce Jarvis and Bill Chillari with some timely hitting to beat host West Virginia once and Texas A&M twice.
Coach Chris Pollard’s team will take on Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., for a shot at making the first College World Series trip in school history.
“This was the reward for (our guys) for staying in the fight for what has been a trying season at times for us,” Pollard said. “You look at the record and wonder why it was trying, just having to go through the kind of setbacks and injuries and getting off to a slow start in the ACC. These guys had to stay really tough and resilient and stay together and they did. They kept playing hard for our culture, and because of that, they were in a position to pull off something really great this weekend.”
State, by contrast, found itself at the opposite end of the spectrum.
After getting off to a 19-0 start and being ranked as high as No. 2 in the country, the Wolfpack (42-19) lost its momentum and ended up dropping its final four games. The slump started with an 11-0 loss to Florida State in what was termed a “meaningless game” at the ACC Tournament.
Coach Elliott Avent’s team never recovered, though, and was eliminated with losses to Campbell and ECU in Greenville.
“As hard as it is, you get about a week to lick your wounds, to rest up a little bit, but then you’ve got to re-energize and figure out how you’ve got to take the summer to get better individually,” Avent said, “so your ball club gets better when you get back in the fall.”
The disappointment was even greater for Campbell (37-21), which came within a win of advancing to the Super Regionals for the first time in school history.