North Carolina and Campbell open the NCAA baseball tournament Friday a long way from home, quite a departure from a year ago, when it seemed like the entire college baseball world revolved around the Triangle, with regionals and super regionals in Chapel Hill and Raleigh and local teams accounting for a quarter of the College World Series field.
After what might have been the greatest season of college baseball in North Carolina – highlighted by the 18-inning ACC tournament battle between Omaha-bound N.C. State and North Carolina in front of a record-breaking crowd of 11,392 – this season is limping to a merciful end. The Tar Heels, the No. 3 seed in Gainesville, Fla., and the Camels, the No. 4 seed in Columbia, S.C., will need to overturn the odds to keep this season alive.
All the momentum gathered in recent years came to a halt as N.C. State went from a top-five preseason ranking to out of the postseason, North Carolina failed to host an NCAA regional for only the second time in eight years and East Carolina missed the NCAA tournament for the second straight year after making it in 12 of the previous 14 seasons.
Even impressive Duke, which recorded one of its best seasons in two decades, wasn’t one of seven ACC teams in the NCAA tournament. Only Campbell, which was oddly snubbed as an at-large team a year ago, can be completely satisfied, winning the Big South tournament to remove all NCAA doubt this time.
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The Tar Heels, with six College World Series appearances in the past eight years, are entitled to a blip here and there. The last time they failed to host a regional, 2010, they bounced back immediately with another trip to Omaha. It’s the Wolfpack that bears the most blame, thanks to a season that imploded in a supernova of hubris and complacency.
N.C. State unquestionably had some holes to fill from last season, but with two likely top-10 major-league draft picks, including the potential No. 1 pick in Carlos Rodon, the raw material was there for another run at an ACC title, if not a national title. And the Wolfpack made sure everyone knew it.
“We deserve the hype and I hope we live up to it,” catcher Brett Austin said in February, tempting fate, but he was hardly alone among his teammates, the rhetoric openly encouraged by coach Elliott Avent.
The Wolfpack displayed more than enough pride to goeth before a mighty big fall, and it was truly poetic that its entire season came down to a baffling blown call by an inattentive home-place umpire in the ACC tournament. Homer couldn’t have written it any better.
For a sport perennially trying to rise above niche status and cross into the mainstream, last season was the high point of a gradual increase in interest that culminated in a perfect storm of rivalry and quality when both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels made it to the College World Series, filling ballparks along the way. This season was a huge step backward, with all the compelling preseason storylines fizzling and the NCAA tournament soldiering on with very little local representation.
College baseball already has enough barriers to entry for casual fans: The incessant pitching changes, the infatuation with bunting and the interminable games just to start. (Last Saturday, when Duke’s 1 p.m. lacrosse national semifinal victory over Denver ended, its 11 a.m. baseball loss to Miami in the ACC tournament was still going and going and going.)
That’s all true even when the local teams are nationally competitive. When they’re not, it’s hard to imagine those five-figure crowds coming back out anytime soon.