Pack Opens Regional Play Today

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State coach Elliott Avent wants to follow the same path to Omaha that Vanderbilt took last year.

The Wolfpack are making their ninth NCAA tournament appearance in 10 years, but their season always manages to stall somewhere along the way to the College World Series. They haven't been there since 1968.

"So many years, we've been close to going to the World Series ... but a couple of things haven't happened," Avent said Thursday. "So I think the key is ... be consistent, keep getting there and if you keep getting there, you're going to bust that door down. I hope it's this year."

Top-seeded N.C. State (39-17) faces fourth-seeded Sacred Heart (25-30) on Friday, a few hours after the second-seeded Commodores (33-26) face No. 3 seed UNC Wilmington (38-21). The winner of the double-elimination tournament advances to a best-of-three super regional series against the winner of the Gainesville Regional — most likely, No. 1 overall seed Florida.

The only one of the four teams in Raleigh to reach Omaha in the last 40 years is Vandy — which finally made it there last season after six straight years of falling short in the preliminary rounds. The Commodores are in the tournament for the 11th time in school history and seventh straight season, and coach Tim Corbin says the value of all that experience can't be overstated.

Among the five position players who were regular starters last year are infielder Anthony Gomez, who's hitting a team-best .354, and all three outfielders. They helped Vandy win 20 of 26 games before their loss to Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

"Guys who get to this point of the year know how to handle themselves, and they can pass that along to the guys who haven't been here before," Corbin said. "I really think it's the reason why we've been able to play well the last five weeks, because I think they probably saw it coming, and they felt it, and were able to help some of the newer kids and younger kids understand that, OK, if we go through a dry period, we can still come out of this thing looking pretty good."

That's an attitude the Wolfpack is trying to develop. They're making their third straight NCAA tournament appearance and are playing host to a regional for the first time since 2008 — also the last time they reached the super regionals.

The other two teams in this regional haven't had quite as much success in the postseason.

Colonial Athletic Association champion UNC Wilmington is in the tournament for just the fifth time — all since 2003 — and the first since 2008, when they were eliminated by a North Carolina team that made its way to the College World Series.

"Hopefully, we can handle some things this weekend that we may not have seen during the course of this season," UNC Wilmington coach Mark Scalf said. The Commodores, he added, "do a tremendous job of preparing their players — not just at this time of year, but during the course of the year, and that's why they're where they are at this time of the year every year. They're playing in the postseason, with a chance to compete to get to Omaha, and it's a great challenge for us."

Sacred Heart, which won its second straight Northeast Conference title, is looking for its first NCAA tournament victory. The Pioneers were swept in both 2006 and 2011.

Meanwhile, the most dominant player in this regional might be one of its youngest.

N.C. State pitcher Carlos Rodon became the first freshman in Atlantic Coast Conference history to be voted its pitcher of the year.

Teammate Chris Diaz says Rodon — a lefty with a 99 mph fastball — "has five pitches that he can get you out with," and he went 9-0 with an ERA of 1.46 and ranks third nationally with 126 strikeouts.

Rodon, a native of nearby Holly Springs, was drafted in the 16th round last year by the Milwaukee Brewers and waited until the last possible day to decide he would play college ball and hold off on going pro until after his junior year in 2014.

"I was moving in to my apartment (at N.C. State) and I sat down in my room. I sat there, looked around — I had a nice room, nice bed, just nice new roommates, new friends — and I thought to myself, 'I should just stay here a couple of years and maybe it will work out,'" Rodon said. "It was the best decision of my life."

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