UNC-N.C. State rivalry returns to the DBAP
Last year’s series between North Carolina and N.C. State featured an 18-inning marathon in the ACC Tournament and two meetings in the College World Series, the sport’s biggest stage.
But both programs have struggled this season. So when the teams meet today at a sold-out Durham Bulls Athletic Park (7 p.m., weather permitting) for what could be their only 2014 matchup, the result will be important for a different reason.
After combining to go 109-28 last season, both UNC (21-15) and N.C. State (20-15) are fighting to make the NCAA Tournament field this year. Aside from the bragging rights involved with beating a rival in front of at least 10,000 fans, both teams also need a win to improve their postseason resume.
“Could be even more at stake than last year,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “We’re both kind of fighting for our lives here. Pretty much every game from here on out I think is a really critical one for both teams as we finish out. It’s not hard to see that.”
The Tar Heels are 84th in Boyd’s World’s daily RPI. While the RPI is just a small piece of the NCAA Tournament selection process, the lowest-rated team to receive an at-large bid in 2012 was No. 51 Sam Houston State.
UNC still has weekend series left against three teams in Baseball America’s top 15 – No. 1 Virginia, No. 4 Florida State and No. 15 Miami – and is hoping to build off the momentum from a series win over Wake Forest this past weekend.
N.C. State is 45th in the RPI, but at 6-12 in the ACC (the 12th best record out of 14 teams), the Wolfpack is in danger of missing the 10-team ACC Tournament altogether.
“It’s funny the path that programs have taken,” Fox said. “We kind of took the same path last year and now we’re taking a similar path this year, but it’s probably not the path that we both want to be on. It’s kind of crazy how it’s turned into that this year. I think it’s going to be a great game no matter what, once the game starts.”
The midweek game, marketed as the “Duel at the DBAP,” was scheduled because the Tar Heels and Wolfpack were not scheduled to play a conference series this season. Unlike football and basketball teams, ACC baseball teams are not guaranteed annual series against permanent rivals until 2015. Each program faces 10 of the other 13 teams in the conference, and UNC-N.C. State was not included in the 2014 league schedule.
The two schools, along with the management at the newly renovated DBAP, scheduled a non-conference game to ensure that there would be at least one meeting this season.
The last time UNC played N.C. State at the DBAP was last year’s 18-inning ACC Tournament game, won 2-1 by the Tar Heels, which set a state record for attendance at a college baseball game (11,391).
Both schools later advanced to the College World Series, with the Wolfpack beating the Tar Heels in the opener and UNC eliminating N.C. State from the double-elimination tournament later in the week.
Wolfpack ace and potential No. 1 draft pick Carlos Rodon started all three postseason games against Tar Heels last year, but he isn’t expected to pitch today.
Instead, N.C. State will go with junior Logan Jernigan (4-3, 3.40), while UNC will counter with Taylore Cherry (0-0, 3.52). Cherry has only thrown 15.1 innings this year, but the sophomore won his first collegiate start at the DBAP last season, allowing one earned run in five innings in the ACC championship game against Virginia Tech.
UNC and N.C. State both are far from ACC championship form so far this season. But that won’t make today’s game any less meaningful for Fox.
“When you’re fighting for your life, sometimes you get something even more special,” Fox said. “I think you’ll see a high level of play and a very intense game I would imagine.”
Follow UNC beat writer Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut.