On to Omaha: NC State heads to College World Series

The Wolfpack posted a dramatic win over No. 1 Arkansas in the super regional

NC State players celebrate after beating Arkansas 3-2 on Sunday to advance to the College World Series. (Michael Woods / AP Photo)

The living embodiment of Yogi Berra, NC State continued to show that things aren’t over, no matter how bad they might look.

The Wolfpack opened the season 1-8 in ACC play but bounced back to finish 19-14, 35-18 overall.

In the NCAA super regional over the weekend, the Pack was matched up with No 1 Arkansas, who has topped the national poll for most of the year and features the likely national player of the year, pitcher Kevin Kopps.

Things seemed bleak, indeed, when Arkansas looked every bit the best in baseball, pounding the Pack 21-2 to open the three-game series.

Kopps would pitch in the last two games, going two innings of relief on Saturday and getting the start on Sunday. He was a perfect 12-0 on the year and hadn’t allowed a run in 15⅓ innings in the NCAA regionals and supers.

State fell behind early on Saturday and the specter of elimination loomed large. The Wolfpack battled back, however, taking a 6-2 lead and holding off an Arkansas rally to win 6-5 on Saturday, then holding off another Razorbacks charge to pull out a dramatic 3-2 win on Sunday.

NC State’s Jose Torres watches the ball after connecting on his ninth-inning home run against Arkansas on Sunday that sent the Wolfpack to the College World Series. (Michael Woods / AP Photo)

Jose Torres, who homered in all three games, went deep off Kopps in the ninth of Sunday’s deciding game to send the Pack to the College World Series. This will be the Wolfpack’s third trip to the CWS and first since 2013. NC State also went in 1968, finishing third in the nation that year.

“When you go to Omaha, there’s always a reason that is special to you — besides the players, which is always first and foremost,” NC State coach Elliott Avent said. “It’s all about the players. The school gets a lot out of it, the staff gets a lot out of it… I remember the first time I went there how special it was for the players. It was so special for me to have my daddy there. That was a special moment for me. I am so happy for these players.”

The Pack will be an underdog in Omaha, one of just two teams out of the eight that remain that were not national seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, the Pack has the field right where they want them.

State draws No. 9 Stanford in the first game. The Cardinal upset No. 8 Texas Tech in the Lubbock Super Regional and also fancy themselves as the underdogs.

“Everybody was waiting for us to hit midnight and maybe not be as good as we were playing,” coach David Esquer said, “and it just never happened.”

The Cardinal are led at the plate by Brock Jones, who is tops on the team in home runs (16), RBIs (54), steals (14) and OPS (1.072). He went deep three times in the game that clinched the Cardinal a trip to Omaha.

On the mound, Stanford has a pair of shutdown starters in Brendan Beck and Alex Williams, who shut down the Red Raiders in Lubbock. They’re a combined 13-3. Both have ERAs right around 3.00, strike out a batter an inning and allow less than a baserunner an inning. Opponents are hitting less than .200 against each of them.

The other two teams in State’s half of the bracket are No. 5 Arizona and No. 4 Vanderbilt. The winner of NC State-Stanford will face the winner of that game, while the losers will face each other and the end of their seasons in the double-elimination event.

Vanderbilt is the defending national champion and swept East Carolina to advance to Omaha. They are led by Jack Leiter, the son of longtime MLB pitcher Al. Like Kopps, he’s a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given to college baseball’s top player. Vandy also features Kumar Roker, another semifinalist on what might be college baseball’s best pitching staff.

The Commodores haven’t lost in the NCAA’s this year. Arizona escaped a three-game series with Ole Miss to advance to the College World Series.

The other half of the bracket features No. 3 Tennessee against the ACC’s second CWS team — unseeded Virginia. The other game matches No. 7 Mississippi State and No. 2 Texas.

It’s a tough field. State has the fewest wins this season and the fewest CWS appearances of the eight teams. Avent and the Pack wouldn’t have it any other way, however.

“They believed early on when we were 1-8 that we could rebound, and they stuck with it,” the coach said.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over.