Monday, January 19, 2015

Great Expectations? For NC State Baseball, Thanks But No Thanks

Forget about pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. College baseball season begins in less than a month. For NC State, the 2015 season means that the Wolfpack’s Gold Dust Era is finally in the rear-view mirror. Good riddance.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, the last three years were the best of times and the worst of times for NC State baseball. With future first-round draft picks Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner constantly in the headlines, the Wolfpack found itself front and center in the national spotlight for the first time, with very mixed results. For three years, NC State experienced euphoric highs and disappointing lows. Now, the lights are off and everyone seems to be breathing a sigh of relief.

The Gold Dust Era began well enough. The Pack caught a lot of people by surprise when Rodon and Turner were freshmen in 2012, winning 43 games and advancing to the NCAA Super Regional before falling on the road to top-ranked Florida. Expectations ratcheted up significantly a year later, and NC State rode a razor’s edge of excruciating, low-scoring thrillers all the way to Omaha and the 2013 College World Series, ending a 45-year CWS drought. Rodon and Turner returned to headline a heralded junior class a year ago, and for a number of reasons the expectations became completely unrealistic. NC State found itself ranked No. 6 in the nation in the preseason, then barely limped into the play-in round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament before failing to earn an NCAA regional bid for the first since 2009.

The glare of the spotlight brings unavoidable and unwanted distractions. With Rodon and Turner eligible for the 2014 draft, weekends at Doak Field became a side show. On many a Friday night at the Doak, fans rubbed elbows with national media members; major league scouts, cross checkers and scouting directors; MLB general managers and team presidents; and high-profile player agents along with their sycophants and entourages.

Those types of distractions are tough enough for good teams to overcome. For a struggling, overmatched and pitching-challenged team like the 2014 Wolfpack, those distractions added a surreal, almost science-fiction-like quality to what already was a nightmare of a season. A three-year era, one that began with such promise and included so many thrills, ended with a thud and a 32-23 record.

Although he’d never say so for public consumption, it’s a safe bet that no one was happier to see 2014 end than NC State coach Elliott Avent. Heading into the season, Avent had to know the preseason expectations for his team were absurd. While then-sophomores Rodon, Turner, Brett Austin, Jake Fincher, Logan Ratledge and Logan Jernigan got all the attention on that 2013 CWS team, Avent knew better than anyone that it was his senior class, not his sophomores, who were most responsible for the trip to Omaha.

It was seniors Tarran Senay, Brett Williams, Grant Clyde and Bryan Adametz who provided the grit, toughness and leadership — along with much of the production — in the everyday lineup. It was seniors Grant Sasser, Chris Overman, Josh Easley and Ethan Ogburn who pitched the bulk of the innings out of what was probably the best bullpen in the country, a bullpen that saved an underwhelming starting rotation over and over again.

With those seniors gone, Avent knew that 2014 was fraught with peril. Leadership proved to be an issue all season. The everyday lineup was top-heavy with Austin, Turner and freshman wunderkind Andrew Knizner doing almost all of the heavy lifting. The senior-laden bullpen of 2013 gave way to a patchwork of transfers, bandits, unproven underclassmen and true freshmen who threw hard but couldn’t throw strikes. It was a disaster waiting to happen. At times Avent did his best to downplay the expectations, but at other times he yielded to his inner child and boasted of possible parades in downtown Raleigh come July. That didn’t help, to understate the obvious.

And so the Wolfpack and its beleaguered head coach enter 2015 with a sense of relief and anticipation. Those who expected fall practices to be a train wreck had to have been pleasantly surprised. The 2015 Wolfpack will not feature the front-line talents of a Rodon or a Turner (although as Knizner’s transition to catcher continues, he could be a huge attraction a year from now). Instead, the Pack will be young, hungry and coachable, and will play with an energy and passion that fans should quickly recognize and appreciate. A promising but unproven pitching staff could be a work in progress deep into the season as new pitching coach Scott Foxhall sorts out the many talented arms at his disposal. The lineup won’t have an Austin or a Turner at the top, but should be deeper and feature more power, something Avent will welcome with open arms after the speedy but offensively challenged Punch-and-Judy offenses of the last two years. And this Wolfpack team should be one of Avent’s best defensive units.

Expectations, of course, will be the key. A year ago, the world expected nothing less than a return trip to the College World Series. For that team, 32-23 was a realistic but bitter disappointment. This time around, the Wolfpack may not be picked as high as No. 6 in the ACC’s Atlantic Division and definitely won’t be in anyone’s preseason rankings. Given those expectations, 32-23 might look pretty good.

Historically, Avent’s teams have performed best and overachieved when little was expected. That’s not to say this team will be in the NCAA Tournament come June, or even on the bubble when the tournament pairings are announced. There are far too many unanswered questions to make such assumptions at this point. But don’t be too quick to write this team off. After last year’s Fun Bunch, in many ways this team will have an easy act to follow.

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