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    Tony Haynes: Pack Battles To The End
     
     

    Updated: 5/31/07 to add audio clips 

    BY TONY HAYNES

    Not even the most gifted of psychics can truly predict what will happen this weekend when the NC State baseball team makes its fifth straight appearance in the NCAA Regionals. But it doesn’t require a psychic to forecast the type of effort coach Elliott Avent’s club will put forth.

     

    Whether it’s the first pitch of Friday’s 2 p.m. opener against Charlotte, or the final out of a potential elimination game later in the weekend, the second-seeded Wolfpack will fight to the bitter end.

     

    When he gathered his 10th NC State squad together for fall practice, Avent knew this wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, after losing seven key position players off of a club that won 41 games the season before, Avent had to prepare himself for a harsh reality: a talent-challenged team that lacked experience and offensive firepower might have a very difficult time qualifying for both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.

     

    Even with two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Wolfpack’s postseason hopes were hanging by a thread about as thick and sturdy as a piece of used dental floss.

     

    A game under .500 in the conference after dropping a home series to North Carolina in late April, the Wolfpack faced the daunting prospects of having to go on the road for a series against nationally ranked Virginia before finishing up at home against Clemson.

     

    By then, however, Avent wasn’t nearly as concerned about this team as he had been back in the fall. For one, sophomore lefty Eric Surkamp had become a solid Friday starter, someone who could be relied upon to deliver a quality performance almost every time out. Secondly, veteran infielder Ramon Corona had finally started to swing the bat after a horrendous start. Third, the decision to move Eryk McConnell from the starting rotation to the bullpen proved to be a stroke of genius. A junior right-hander from Waynesville, McConnell notched 11 saves with an impressive 1.19 ERA. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Avent and his staff had stumbled across one of college baseball’s best success stories of 2007.

     

    At the beginning of the season, Dallas Poulk looked more like Tanner in the original Bad News Bears movie than a legitimate college baseball player. But by the end of the campaign, the freshman second baseman from Fayetteville had established himself as one of the ACC’s top rookies. Just as no one quite knew what to expect when Lou Gehrig replaced Wally Pip in the New York Yankees’ line-up back in 1925, it would have been impossible to predict what Poulk would do when he filled in for the injured Vince Gutierrez at second base against Valparaiso on March 14. Like Gehrig, however, Poulk never came out of the line-up again, hitting 392 over the Pack’s last 39 games.

     

    With all of those forces at work, NC State won 4-of-6 from Virginia and Clemson down the stretch, and then rebounded to beat Georgia Tech following an ugly performance versus UNC at the ACC Tournament.

     

    Now 37-21 heading into Friday’s match-up with Charlotte in Columbia, the Pack will try to pull off a few more surprises before the season finally comes to an end. Major obstacles beyond the opposition remain. Junior Andrew Brackman, a regular in the starting rotation all season, did not even travel with his teammates to Columbia, suffering from inflammation in his pitching elbow. With Brackman on the shelf, the Pack will likely need a lift from junior righty Clayton Shunick, who has shown promise in recent weeks. It would be fair, however, for Avent to assume that Surkamp won’t repeat the tough outing he experienced when he gave up four earned runs and nine hits in five innings against the Tar Heels at the ACC Tournament.

     

    At this point, the Pack is playing with the house’s money since there were times over the last three months when it was thought NC State might very well be on the outside looking in come NCAA Tournament time.

     

    If the regular season is any indication, it might not always be pretty this weekend. With Corona still nursing a foot injury, Brackman's absence and shortstop Tommy Foschi still coping with the sudden passing of his father a few weeks ago, NC State isn’t exactly driving down easy street right now.

     

    But perhaps that’s way it was always meant to be with this team. No one was ever under the illusion that this journey through the 2007 season would be a Sunday stroll through the park and it hasn’t been.

    Win or lose, however, this Wolfpack team will battle to the bitter end.
     

     

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