ECU, NC State head to baseball super regionals

The Pirates and Wolfpack, who were both perfect in their regionals, face stiff tests to reach the College World Series

NC State pitcher Sam Highfill was half of a one-two punch on the mound, along with Reid Johnston, that helped the Wolfpack coast through its regional and earn a date with top national seed Arkansas in the super regional. (Chris Carlson / AP Photo)

Losing in their conference tournaments was a major downer for the NC State and East Carolina baseball teams.

Those defeats, however, may have served as the springboard that lifted both teams to even more meaningful victories.

Drawing on the motivation and lessons learned from their earlier disappointments, the Wolfpack and Pirates bounced back to win their respective NCAA regionals over the weekend, moving them one step closer to a spot in the College World Series.

State will attempt to earn its first trip to Omaha since 2013 with a super regional date against top national seed Arkansas, while ECU looks to qualify for the first time in a similar best-of-three series against defending national champion Vanderbilt.

“The ACC Tournament was just a grueling, grueling tournament,” said Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent, whose team was denied its first conference title since 1992 with a heartbreaking 1-0 championship loss to Duke. “You’ve got 12 great teams. Some are fighting for postseason bids, some are fighting to be a host site, and some are fighting for a national seed, but it’s 12 great teams.

“I told (the team) that’s the toughest tournament they’ll ever play in. It drains you a little bit. It taxes you a little bit. Just learn from it. … I think going through the ACC Tournament did help them, and I think they did learn from it.”

The Wolfpack outscored its opponents 30-11 and got standout pitching performances from Reid Johnston and Sam Highfill to sweep through its regional in Ruston, Louisiana. Two of its three wins came against top-seeded host Louisiana Tech, including a clinching 14-7 victory Sunday highlighted by a go-ahead grand slam by tournament MVP Devonte Brown.

ECU, meanwhile, advanced to its second straight NCAA super regional by going unbeaten in its own regional in Greenville, coming from behind to beat Norfolk State and Charlotte in the first two games before outlasting Mother Nature and Maryland for a clinching 9-6 victory in the wee hours of Monday morning.

Four other North Carolina teams had varying degrees of success in their NCAA regionals.

Campbell had the most positive experience, bouncing back from an opening-round loss to VCU to advance to the championship round of its regional in Starkville, Mississippi. The Camels beat Samford, then turned the tables on VCU by beating the Rams 19-10 before falling one run short of forcing a deciding game against top-seeded host Mississippi State.

North Carolina and Charlotte both won their opening games before being eliminated with two straight losses. Duke, possibly drained from its emotional ACC Tournament championship the previous week, suffered a pair of lopsided losses at the hands of Liberty to go out quietly in the NCAA’s Knoxville Regional.

Emotion had the opposite effect on ECU, as it used the electricity of a sold-out Clark-LeClair Stadium to turn a disappointing semifinal elimination at the American Athletic Conference Tournament into a distant memory.

“It’s definitely something you dream about, and it’s definitely a cool moment for sure,” said Greenville Regional MVP Matt Bridges, a sixth-year senior relief pitcher who earned a win and two saves for the Pirates. “It’ll go down in my memory book. But we’re not done. I hope there’s more for everybody here. We’re looking to do something special.”

ECU is making its 31st NCAA Tournament appearance, the most of any team in the country without getting to the CWS. The task of losing that distinction is a tall one considering the opposition and pitching it will have to face in Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter.

But at least the Pirates will be better prepared for the challenge than they were in 2019 when they were worn out by a grueling weather-delayed regional and a short turnaround before a super regional at Louisville.

“Playing five games in 3½ days was tough on our guys,” ECU coach Cliff Godwin said. “I remember breaking the huddle during the practice day and I saw our guys move that first step and I go, ‘Uh-oh, that ain’t gonna be good.’

“They gave us everything they had. But the team Louisville saw was not the team that had played all year.”

Similarly, State isn’t the same team it was at the start of this season. But that’s a positive rather than a negative, considering that the Wolfpack started the season 4-9 overall and 1-8 in the ACC before turning things around.

And they aren’t done yet.

“It feels great right now,” said junior left fielder Jonny Butler. “But this isn’t the end goal for us. We know how good we are. We know we can make it as far as anyone. It’s really relieving right now and satisfying, but we’re not done yet. We’re ready to go.”