North Carolina State University has long been home to one of the most prestigious biological science programs in the world, where scientists specializing in genomics have worked tirelessly for decades to crack the code of DNA. Each phase of their work is a step on the way to better living beings, an evolution that could one day lead to the perfect person or animal existing in an environment and excelling in an environment for which they were literally created, to love her and thrive in it.
But if you’re looking for the perfect subject, the consummate example of the ideal they all strive for, “made for that” ideal, all you need to do is take a stroll across campus to Doak Field to see Elliott Avent the NC trains the state Wolfpack baseball team.
But they can’t do that this week. The pack isn’t in Raleigh.
You are 1,200 miles away, one of the last four teams remaining in the College World Series and just one win away from playing a national championship. This rowdy, fearless, huge devastating team from NC State has become the toast of college baseball, Omaha’s elected hometown team, the party-crashers who are only making their third appearance on the sport’s biggest stage. Led there by a man who was cared for and who dreamed of this moment for all his 65 years of life.
“I love North Carolina State University so much that I have a hard time describing it to people,” Avent said Thursday afternoon, the night before his team’s semi-final game against Vanderbilt (2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN / ESPN app). “This trip to Omaha made a lot of people who love the wolf pack very happy. And I love the wolf pack, so yeah, I’m pretty happy too.”
The words are spoken in the unmistakable tone of a boy who grew up in rural North Carolina, on farmland an hour northeast of Raleigh.
The Avents of Aventon lived right on Avent Road. To be clear, Aventon is not a city. It’s not even a village. At best, it’s a junction found on the bank of a good fishing creek called, well, Fishing Creek. Little Elliott Avent never wanted to become a farmer or work in the textile industry, the most common career path for most east North Carolina kids, especially those who dreamed of going to state university. Instead, he fell in love with baseball. From the first time he grabbed a hard ball that his father Jack handed him, he was obsessed with it. Baseball was all he thought of, from his local youth league to Mickey Mantles New York Yankees.
He arrived in NC State as a freshman in 1974, just in time to celebrate the pack’s iconic NCAA national basketball title when David Thompson & Co. beat UCLA in the Final Four. The baseball team also won an ACC baseball championship that spring, and when NCSU’s Ronnie Evans met a three-run walk-off homer to claim that title, Thompson jumped from the stands and ran alongside Evans, when he came down the third baseline.
Avent played for Sam Esposito, who coached NC State baseball for 21 years, won 513 games and brought dozens of players into professional baseball, but incredibly only brought one team to the College World Series and made it to the semifinals in 1968. Even longtime Esposito assistant Ray Tanner, who coached South Carolina to two college World Series titles, couldn’t get the pack to Omaha in nine years of trying.
“It’s just proof of how hard it is to get to Omaha, and it always has been,” said Avent, who played on the last NC State team in 1975 for both the ACC regular season and tournament titles to win.
“We’re in a state like North Carolina that has so many baseball talents. We won a lot of games and putting a lot of guys in the big leagues, all-stars, is incredibly difficult. For me it is only appreciated a lot more. So I wouldn’t even allow myself to be here if I didn’t deserve it. “
Avent’s first head coaching appearance was in New Mexico state, an eight-year tenure that began in 1989, where he led the Aggies to a record 225-213, but zero post-season NCAA appearances. During his time in the West, he trained against, befriended, and studied western college baseball legends like Jerry Kindall in Arizona, Gene Stephenson in Wichita State, Dave Snow of Long Beach State, and the greatest of them all, Augie Garrido of Cal State Fullerton.
During that time he made a trip to the College World Series, just not with the Aggies. He went to Omaha to attend a coaching clinic because “I had no money and they wanted to pay me a little and got me tickets to the series too.”
Avent went to the Rosenblatt Stadium. He was walking the streets of Omaha. He soaked up every single bit of the CWS atmosphere. He was amazed. And then he swore to himself never to do that again.
“It was magical. It was real,” he recalled. “But I said I’d never come back until I got a team here that was in the College World Series.”
At the end of the 1996 season, Tanner went to South Carolina. Avent’s phone rang. The state of North Carolina called him home.
The first season he made the NCAA tournament, a blue collar team led by a brave two-way player in pitcher / first baseman Chris Combs. A quarter of a century later, his teams were in the postseason 18 times in 25 seasons, 24 if you omit the 2020 season shortened by COVID-19. The pack was 14-3 on March 13, 2020 when the season was canceled.
The win was great. The postseason appearances were even better, including three Super Regionals between 2003 and 2012. But what the pack believers loved most about Avent was that he spoke their red and white language.
“Elliott has always been one of us,” said longtime sports information director Bruce Winkworth of his colleague and best friend in 2013. “When he’s not at his job, he’s in the stands watching one of our other teams go crazy, just like he and his classmates were in the 1970s. He’s a Wolfpack sports fan. So it seems like everyone his best friends are either former NC State athletes or coaches. “
Avent always got – and still gets – emotional when he talks about David Thompson in ’74 and Jimmy Valvano in ’83.
He lives to beat UNC. He walked in the door to his new job and immediately started fighting in tar heels for recruits from Charlotte and Greensboro, and especially the Down East. He brought Russell Wilson into the infield and Carlos Rodon up the hill. When he finally brought NC State back to Omaha in 2013, the response was everything he’d hoped for and more.
He saw it in the eyes of a hungry fan base. He saw it in the eyes of David Thompson and his classmates back then. But most of all, he saw it in his father’s eyes.
“It showed everyone that we belong to Omaha,” he said. “We finally got over that hump, and right away people realized it wasn’t impossible. And just like on my first visit, when you get a taste of that you’re there, it does anything you want to do anything to get back. “
Now they are. He is. Even if it’s not next to so many that he loved so much. Winkworth died in May 2019. That fall, former NC State soccer coach George Tarantini died of a serious heart attack. In September 2020, Combs died four years after being diagnosed with ALS. In January 2021, just before the start of baseball season, Avent’s father died.
Perhaps that’s why the pack started this season in such a deep hole, a 1-8 start of the ACC conference game that was particularly impressive after the incredible start to the season a year earlier. But maybe that’s why they gathered from where they are now. This team and its fans gathered around their coach all spring and did so into the summer.
They never believed they weren’t going to Louisiana and La. Tech in the Regionals or to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and after losing their first Super Regional game 21-2, they come back to beat the top ranked Razorbacks defeat Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Brendan Beck and Vandy All-American Jack Head in Omaha. You certainly believe they can beat the other half of the Commodores’ 1-2 punch, College World Series 2019 hero Kumar Rocker, on Friday.
They carry themselves like a team that was created for this moment and everyone plays for the university they love. In other words, they were built for that. Just like her trainer.
“I can’t tell you what will happen Friday or this weekend, or hopefully if we still play next week,” said Avent and a smile crossed his face that he certainly would not have seen coming if he was so enveloped in sadness only five months ago. “But I can tell you we will enjoy it. Anyone who loves NC State will enjoy it.