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UNC, NC State seek to rekindle baseball magic in ‘non-conference’ meeting

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com

DURHAM North Carolina and N.C. State played perhaps the greatest college baseball game in state history last May in the ACC tournament at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park – a game that lasted 18 innings, and nearly six hours, and ended in a 2-1 victory for the Tar Heels.

They met again in Omaha, Neb., twice, in the College World Series, but when the ACC released its 2014 baseball schedule, it didn’t include a regular-season series between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack. Mike Fox, North Carolina’s coach, and N.C. State coach Elliott Avent knew that wouldn’t stand.

“Elliott and I kind of looked at each other like, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” Fox said Tuesday.

The schools decided to play each other once this season, on April 15 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Fox, Avent and Bulls officials made the announcement in a conference room that overlooks the field where UNC and N.C. State made history last May.

Organizers dubbed it the “Duel at the DBAP” and tickets, which are on sale now, are $10. The seats are likely to be divided behind home plate, with N.C. State fans on one side of the stadium and UNC fans on the other.

By the end of those 18 innings last May, there weren’t many people left from a crowd of 11,392 – the largest to watch a college baseball game in this state. The game ended a little before 2 a.m., but what Avent remembers most is how the streets were lined with red and light blue long before it began.

“The story I remember from that game, as far as the crowd, was people were trying to get in four hours before the game started or something,” Avent said. “It was like crazy. The lines were unbelievable.”

N.C. State won a coin flip to be the home team for April 15. The game won’t count in the ACC standings. The teams aren’t meeting for a three-game series because they are in opposite divisions, and they rotated off each other’s conference schedule.

That won’t happen again, though, because the league’s baseball coaches have agreed to reinstate a “permanent partner” system that guarantees cross-divisional rivals will play every season. N.C. State and UNC will be permanent partners in baseball – like they are in basketball – beginning next season.

Avent, Fox and officials from both schools worked to ensure they would play this season. The only questions were how often and where. The schools discussed a three-game series, or a two game home-and-home.

“I think Elliott and I knew we were going to play this coming season,” Fox said. “Somewhere, somehow, someway. Whether it was one game, two game, three games. … The chances are slim that we’re going to be able to repeat (last year in the ACC tournament), but stranger things have happened in this game. So who knows.”

Both teams lost key players from a season ago, but they’re still expected to compete for the ACC championship. Carlos Rodon, N.C. State’s junior left-handed pitcher, is one of the most acclaimed major league prospects in the nation.

Avent wouldn’t say whether Rodon would start against UNC, though that wouldn’t surprise Fox. N.C. State will play Duke the weekend before and Boston College the weekend after.

“They have a pretty good ace,” Fox said with a smile. “So who knows? We’ll see.”

The baseball programs at UNC and N.C. State have long played in the shadows of more popular sports. Local interest in college baseball, though, rose dramatically last spring and summer, when the teams met in the ACC tournament and on a national stage in the College World Series.

Avent laughed when asked if North Carolina could become a college baseball state.

“Lord, no,” he said. “We’re happy that it’s not just a basketball, football state.”

Even so, the announcement served as more evidence of college baseball’s surging popularity in North Carolina. Fox said he couldn’t remember speaking in front of as many reporters in the middle of January – the middle of college basketball season – and he and Avent spoke of building off what their teams created last year.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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