He wasn’t at the bottom of the dog pile, but who would have blamed Elliott Avent if he was?
After N.C. State clinched a trip to the College World Series with a 3-2 win over No. 1 Arkansas on Sunday in the Super Regional Round, Avent walked over to Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn and congratulated his adversary.
Avent got the traditional Gatorade bath and took a short slide in front of his team to pose for the group photo. All things considering, one of the biggest ambassadors of the university was uncharacteristically chill.
This isn’t Avent’s first trip to the College World Series — he led the Wolfpack there in 2013 — but this was a wild ride. There was the 1-8 start in ACC play, the 1-0 loss to Duke in the ACC title game, and the 19-run deficit in the Game 1 loss to Arkansas. And that’s just the baseball stuff.
Avent had to overcome personal losses long before the season started in February. Last September, Chris Combs, who was a member of Avent’s first team at N.C. State — and a close friend — died after a long battle with ALS. In January, Avent’s dad, Jack, passed away after complications from surgery. For the first time in his coaching career, Avent was going to be leading the Pack without his biggest fan following along.
Those personal losses, and those close to him not being here to enjoy it, may have been why Avent seemed so subdued after the win. But he also knows headed to Omaha he will be carrying the memories of those loved ones with him.
“This has been a difficult couple of years for me,” Avent told the media after the Super Regional win. “Obviously, with my dad this spring, that was a tough one. I went through a rough patch, but I’m so happy right now.”
There are so many State fans and local observers alike, who shared their joy on social media about Avent making it to another CWS. Arguably the most passionate coach in Raleigh has had a tough eight-year stretch between trips to Omaha, with some embarrassing regional round losses in between.
But all along Avent felt something was special about this team, even when they struggled early. At a time when it looked like they wouldn’t even make the postseason, his daily approach to his work never changed. His players took notice.
“Avent’s the best,” freshman shortstop Jose Torres said on Sunday. “He doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves because you guys don’t see the time you put into players how much he cares. Just to see a guy who goes 100 percent for his players, it just makes it easier for us to play for him.”
Paving the way
You would be hard pressed to have a conversation with Avent in which he doesn’t mention some of the coaches who came before him, coaches he looks up to.
Almost on cue he’ll name drop Jim Valvano, who was the athletic director when Avent first arrived at N.C. State. In interviews, Avent has talked about another former Wolfpack legend, former women’s basketball coach Kay Yow, who he leaned on for advice during his early years as the skipper.
As he takes this journey to Omaha, Avent wouldn’t let the moment pass without honoring people on campus who have meant so much to him. Names like his former Sports Information Director Bruce Winkworth, who also served as his bench coach. He talked about former skipper Sam Esposito and former soccer coach George Tarantini, another close friend who Avent could pop into his office and bounce ideas off of.
“I’ve been so fortunate to be around those people,” Avent said. “You mention passion, you have to talk about Jimmy Valvano and Kay Yow. I was fortunate to be around both of (them) for a long time and I learned so much from both of them. They shape how you coach through your life and I owe all of them a debt of gratitude, because anything I try to say to my players, or talk to them about has been learned from those great coaches of yesteryear.”
The coaches of yesteryear shaped Avent, but there was no looking back last week in Arkansas. Before they even arrived in SEC country, Avent was looking ahead (in his mind) to Omaha, because he wanted this dream to become a reality for his current team.
“They deserve to walk in that stadium and me see their eyes and their looks and their faces to be in the greatest college baseball environment there is,” Avent said.
And when he returns to Omaha, Avent will have his dad with him still. Avent carries a keychain that his dad left him with the bible verse Matthew 28:20 inscribed on it: “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
“My daddy is always with me,” Avent said. “And he’ll be watching from a different place this time. It’ll be special for me.”