May 5, 2003 RALEIGH About this time last year, as N.C. State's baseball team was limping along to a seventh-place finish in the ACC standings, there were some people wondering if the Wolfpack had the right coach in place to sustain a successful program.
The Pack was swept by Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State and even Maryland, en route to a 33-26 overall record and a 7-17 mark in the ACC. It was, in fact, 2-4 against the league's bottom two teams and managed to stay out of the ACC Tournament play-in game only by sweeping Virginia in its final series of the year.
Wolfpack fans are like most others when it comes to the major non-revenue sports: They don't want their teams to be embarrassingly bad. But Elliott Avent's program looked as if it might be headed in that direction after last year.
But unlike, say, men's soccer, this year has brought a remarkable turnaround under extremely difficult circumstances. The Wolfpack, coming off a 2-1 series win over North Carolina, had won series against four ranked opponents in the ACC. It rose to No. 5 in the nation in the Collegiate Baseball poll, the team's highest ranking in a decade.
It was a relatively hidden resurgence, however, because until late April the Wolfpack hadn't hosted an ACC series in its own stadium. Because of weather-related construction delays, the massive renovations at Doak Field were not completed by February, as scheduled. Nor were they done in March or the early part of April.
That forced the Wolfpack to barnstorm its first 19 home games, at five different ballparks in eastern North Carolina. The results particularly series wins over nationally ranked Florida State and Clemson at Kinston's Grainger Stadium were nothing short of astounding. The Wolfpack was 15-4 in those games.
It finally played its first real home game on April 2, but that was only because Avent and his team were too road-weary to keep getting on the bus. The field was playable, but the renovations to the stadium were far from being complete.
By the time the series with the Tar Heels rolled around, fans were a little less inconvenienced, and all 800 usable seats were sold out well in advance of the games.
So what caused the turnaround? Well, the Wolfpack has two great starting pitchers, redshirt freshman Michael Rogers and junior Vern Sterry, who were a combined 20-1 after the UNC series. It also has a top reliever in freshman Joey Devine, who had the best opponents batting average and third-lowest ERA in the ACC to go along with a league-leading 13 saves.
The Wolfpack doesn't have a great offense. It's ranked seventh in the league in hitting. But there were eight regulars who returned from last year's dismal performance, and they obviously learned how to win games, even if that was a rare occurrence last year.
Our strength is that on the 29-man roster, everybody is contributing, playing good defense, pitching well, said Avent, in his seventh year as the Wolfpack coach. This also might be the best team I have ever had for hitting in the clutch.
With only two ACC series left at home against Maryland and at Georgia Tech the Wolfpack will be in great position heading into the ACC Tournament in Salem, Va. Whether it can sustain its remarkable turnaround in the postseason having only two reliable starters will make it tough is hard to say, but what Avent and his team have accomplished so far is at least as toast-worthy as what Chuck Amato's football team did during its school-record-setting season last fall.
Hoops Challenge Just Got Tougher
Now that North Carolina has the basketball coach it has long coveted, and he has set about the task of rebuilding what was described as a divided family, that leaves only one ACC program in the state of North Carolina with questions warranted or not about its coach.
UNC's hiring of Roy Williams, and the eight-year contract he received, and Wake Forest's signing of coach Skip Prosser to a 10-year extension means Sendek's four-year deal is the shortest of the Big Four coaches. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has a lifetime contract with the school.
That's not really a big deal. N.C. State, as a school, makes it difficult to give more than a five-year contract, and Sendek is likely to be given a one-year extension sometime this summer. Basically, all that takes is approval from the Board of Trustees. Going longer than five years needs approval from the UNC system Board of Governors, and Wolfpack athletic director Lee Fowler prefers sticking to the five-year plan, which is why he increased to five years the deals of Sendek, women's basketball coach Kay Yow and Amato last summer.
But the gist of the matter is this: The other three Big Four schools have the coaches they want for a long time to come. Even after seven seasons, and back-to-back ACC regular-season winning records and ACC Tournament championship games and consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, most Wolfpack fans understandably remain unsure if they have the right guy.
There are reasons for that. Except for the six-player class three years ago that included Julius Hodge, Ilian Evtimov and Josh Powell, Sendek hasn't been a master recruiter. Hodge was a known quantity and a highly coveted prep All-American, but Powell was a second-tier prospect and Evtimov was an unknown. All three have either developed into star players or shown potential for very big things in the future.
All four players signed last year were question marks, with two of them sitting out as redshirts and only one, swingman Cameron Bennerman, getting significant playing time. No one is sure yet if shooting guard Justin Flatt will return next year (it appears unlikely) for his first action as a Wolfpack player, and seven-footer Adam Simon remains a project. This year's incoming class includes Turkish player Engin Atsur, someone few people here in the United States know anything about, and unheralded Florida point guard Mike O'Donnell.
Sendek also has never really been accepted by the rank-and-file fans who make up much of the dissatisfied portion of the Wolfpack family. His personality doesn't lend itself to the back-slapping, joke-telling Wolfpack Club set that fell in love with the legendary effervescence of Jim Valvano. That kind of charisma is one of the things, along with three straight trips to Florida bowls, that has endeared Amato to the same crowd.
The last two years, however, those things haven't mattered as much as the four-game winning streak over the Tar Heels or the consecutive 9-7 records in the ACC. If only the Wolfpack could have won a couple of the non-conference games Sendek scheduled over patsy opponents, there would be little to gripe about at all with his program.
Here's the rub: The Wolfpack should be one of the best teams in the ACC next year, with Evtimov back in action and Powell (barring an unwise NBA jump) maturing into one of the league's best big men. The problem, however, could be that Duke, UNC and Wake also should be strong, which will be very good for basketball fans in a hoops-crazy state but very bad for someone who fails to meet expectations.
Nobody can afford to be that someone less than Sendek, who has had a hard enough time being accepted by a majority of the school's most vocal fans. Without the enjoyable distraction of looking down upon a hated rival, those same folks figure to be even less patient with what they view as the mediocre state of Wolfpack basketball.