North Carolina State University has long been home to one of the planet’s most revered biological science programs, where for decades, scientists specializing in genomics have worked tirelessly to crack the code of DNA. Every phase of their work is a step toward building better living beings, an evolution that might one day result in the perfect person or animal to exist and excel in an environment that they were quite literally crated for, raised to both love it and thrive within it.
But if they are looking for the perfect subject to study, the consummate example of that “he was built for this” ideal they all strive for, they only need to take a stroll across campus over to Doak Field to watch Elliott Avent coach the NC State Wolfpack baseball team.
Only, they can’t do that this week. The Pack isn’t in Raleigh.
They are 1,200 miles away, one of the last four teams remaining in the College World Series and only one win away from playing for a national championship. This scrappy, fearless, giant-slaying NC State squad has become the toast of college baseball, the chosen adopted home team of Omaha, the party crashers who are on their sport’s biggest stage for only the third time ever. Led there by a man who has been groomed for and has dreamed of this moment his entire 65-year life.
“I love North Carolina State University so much, it’s hard for me to describe it to people,” Avent said Thursday afternoon, on the eve of his team’s semifinal matchup with Vanderbilt (2 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). “This trip to Omaha, it has made a lot of people who love the Wolfpack very happy. And I love the Wolfpack, so yeah, I’m pretty happy, too.”
The words are spoken with the unmistakable lilt of a boy raised in rural North Carolina, on farm country an hour northeast of Raleigh.
The Avents of Aventon lived just off Avent Road. To be clear, Aventon isn’t a town. It’s not even a village. It’s a crossroads at best, found along the banks of a good fishing creek called, well, Fishing Creek. Little Elliott Avent never wanted to be a farmer or work in textiles, the most common career paths for most eastern North Carolina kids, especially those who dreamed of attending State. Instead, he fell in love with baseball. From the first time he gripped a hardball, handed to him by his father, Jack, he became obsessed with it. Baseball is all he thought about, from his local youth league all the way up to Mickey Mantle’s New York Yankees.
He arrived at NC State as a freshman in 1974, just in time to celebrate the Pack’s legendary NCAA basketball national title, when David Thompson and company took down UCLA in the Final Four. The baseball team also won an ACC baseball championship that spring, and when NCSU’s Ronnie Evans hit a three-run walk-off homer to clinch that title, Thompson leapt from the grandstands and ran alongside Evans as he came down the third base line.
Avent played for Sam Esposito, who coached NC State baseball for 21 years, won 513 games and put dozens of players into professional baseball, but incredibly, only got one team to the College World Series, reaching the semifinals in 1968. Even longtime Esposito assistant Ray Tanner, who went on to coach South Carolina to a pair of College World Series titles, couldn’t get the Pack to Omaha in nine years of trying.
“That’s just a testament to how hard it is to get to Omaha and always has been,” Avent explained, who played on the last NC State team to win both the ACC regular season and tournament titles in 1975.
“We are sitting here in a state like North Carolina that produces so much baseball talent. We have won a lot of games and we have put a lot of guys in the big leagues, All-Stars. But getting to the College World Series is incredibly hard. To me, that just makes you appreciate it that much more. It’s why I wouldn’t even allow myself to be here unless I had earned it.”
Avent’s first head coaching gig was at New Mexico State, an eight-year tenure beginning in 1989, where he led the Aggies to a record of 225-213, but zero NCAA postseason appearances. During his time out west, he coached against, befriended and studied western college baseball legends, such as Jerry Kindall at Arizona, Gene Stephenson at Wichita State, Long Beach State’s Dave Snow and the greatest of them all, Augie Garrido at Cal State Fullerton.
During that time, he did make a trip to the College World Series, just not with the Aggies. He went to Omaha to participate in a coaching clinic, because “I had no money and they were going to pay me a little bit and they also got me tickets to the Series.”
Avent went to Rosenblatt Stadium. He walked the streets of Omaha. He soaked up every single bit of the CWS atmosphere. He was flabbergasted. And that’s when he promised himself he would never do that again.
“It was magical. It really was,” he recalled. “But I said I would never come back until I got a team here, playing in the College World Series.”
At the end of the 1996 season, Tanner left for South Carolina. Avent’s phone rang. North Carolina State was calling him home.
The very first season he made the NCAA tournament, a blue-collar team led by a gritty two-way player in pitcher/first baseman Chris Combs. A quarter-century later he his teams have been to the postseason 18 times in 25 seasons, 24 if you throw out the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. The Pack was 14-3 on March 13, 2020, when the season was cancelled.
The winning was great. The postseason appearances, including three Super Regionals between 2003-12, were even better. But what the Pack faithful loved most about Avent was that he spoke their red and white language.
“Elliott has always been one of us,” longtime sports information director Bruce Winkworth said of his coworker and best friend in 2013. “If he isn’t at his job, he is in the stands watching one of our other teams, going crazy just like he and his classmates did in the 1970s. He is a Wolfpack sports fan. That’s why it seems like all of 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 at his new job immediately battling with the Tar Heels for recruits from Charlotte and Greensboro and especially Down East. He put Russell Wilson in the infield and Carlos Rodon on the mound. When he finally got NC State back to Omaha in 2013, even though it was a two-and-‘cue trip that included an opening loss to UNC, the reaction was everything he could have hoped for and more.
He saw it in the eyes of a hungry fanbase. He saw it in the eyes of David Thompson and his classmates from back in the day. But he especially saw it in the eyes of his father.
“It showed everyone that we belonged in Omaha,” he said. “We got over that hump, finally, and right then and there, people realized it wasn’t impossible. And just like when I went for the first time, when you get a taste of being there, all it does it make you want to do everything you can to get back.”
Now, they are. He is. Even if it isn’t alongside so many who he has loved so much. Winkworth died in May 2019. That fall, former NC State men’s soccer coach George Tarantini passed away from a massive heart attack. In September 2020, Combs lost a long battle with ALS. In January 2021, just before the start of baseball season, Avent’s father died.
Perhaps that’s why the Pack began this season in so deep of a hole, a 1-8 start to ACC conference play, which was particularly stunning after their incredible beginning to the season one year earlier. But perhaps that is also why they have rallied from there to where they are now. This team and its fans rallied around their coach all spring and have continued to do so into summer.
They never believed they wouldn’t go into Louisiana and upset La. Tech in the regionals, or go into Fayetteville and after losing their first Super Regional game 21-2 come back to knock off top-ranked Arkansas, or to defeat Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Brendan Beck and Vandy All-American Jack Leiter in Omaha. They certainly believe they can defeat the other half of the Commodores’ 1-2 punch, 2019 College World Series hero Kumar Rocker, on Friday.
They carry themselves like a team that was designed for this moment, playing for the university they love. In other words, they were built for this. Just like their coach.
“I can’t tell you what will happen Friday or this weekend, or hopefully if we are still playing next week,” Avent said, a smile cutting across his face that he certainly couldn’t have seen coming when he was so enveloped in grief just five months ago. “But I can tell you that we are going to enjoy it. Everyone who loves NC State is going to enjoy it. We have and we will keep on keeping on.”