North Carolina State waited a long time to make it back to the College World Series. It only makes it sweeter that the first opponent will be the Wolfpack's hated rival.
N.C. State (49-14) is leaving for Omaha on Wednesday, the program's first trip to the CWS since 1968 and just the second overall. Its opener comes Sunday against North Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
The last time the teams met, the Tar Heels won 2-1 in 18 innings over Memorial Day weekend in the longest game in Atlantic Coast Conference tournament history.
"It definitely is meaningful because we owe them another game," N.C. State senior Tarran Senay said. "We owe them our best. It's going to be tough, but it's going to be fun. It's a big one."
The Wolfpack advanced to Omaha with two one-run wins against Rice in last weekend's super regionals here. In the second game, N.C. State had to rally from three down in the ninth before finally winning 5-4 in 17 innings in the longest super regional game ever.
It was a breakthrough for a program that has reached the NCAA tournament in 10 of 11 years and reached the super regionals three times during that span. N.C. State had lost at Miami in 2003, Georgia in 2008 and Florida last year in what amounted to the same frustrating roadblock.
N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said he went right back to work preparing for Omaha after the Rice win. But he gave his players two days off to savor the moment while he started sorting through the congratulatory messages from former players.
"It's been a process," Avent said of the Wolfpack's climb. "Every person from Joey Devine to Aaron Bates and every person that I've heard from ... the phone calls, the text messages, the tweets, the emails, it's just been so special because everyone knows they've been a part of this."
Avent has 648 wins in his 17 seasons and became the program's winningest coach in 2010, passing Sam Esposito — the coach who led the 1968 team to its only previous College World Series.
N.C. State had to wait two days to find out who it would face in its CWS opener. North Carolina's three-game super regional series with South Carolina was delayed two days due to weather before the Tar Heels won Tuesday's decisive game 5-4.
It will be UNC's sixth trip to the College World Series in eight years, though the first meeting between the schools — separated by about a 30-minute drive along Interstate 40 — in the NCAA tournament.
"I do think it certainly has brought attention to college baseball in this area especially," UNC coach Mike Fox said after Tuesday's win. "I know how hard Elliott has worked over there with his program. It's hard, it's hard to get to Omaha — I keep telling myself that. We're going six times in eight years, and I told the players (Monday) night, it's mind-blowing to me."
The teams met three times this year, twice in Raleigh during an April series. The Tar Heels took the series opener 7-1 to end the Wolfpack's 15-game winning streak, the program's longest in a decade. N.C. State won the second game 7-3, but the third game was rained out.
Then came the ACC tournament marathon in Durham, which drew the biggest ever crowd for a college baseball game (11,392) in the history of the state.
N.C. State's players are ready for another shot at North Carolina — and beyond.
"We're not going there to play two games, we're going to play more," sophomore Trea Turner said. "Hopefully we can do that against Carolina and whoever we play after that. We definitely think we can win it ... and we're going to give it our all."