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July 13, 2009

Avent: 'We're on the right track'

Coach Elliott Avent readily admits that there wasn't a single area of NC State baseball that measured up to his expectations in 2009.

The team batting average was .266, down from .299 in 2008.

The pitching staff's ERA ballooned from 3.72 last season to 5.12.

Defensively, the Wolfpack committed 108 errors, up from 79 the previous season.

So what makes Avent confident that Wolfpack baseball will make a comeback in 2010?

"I think it's the quality of our young players," Avent said. "I think they were probably disillusioned with what happened this year, but part of what happened is a testament to the strength of our league. Some things happened to us that just seemed to get out of hand.

"But we know the quality of young people in this program, as well as in our recruiting class, and we're going to bounce back. With the success we had the previous year and the strength of our recruiting class, maybe our expectations were too high. And it's a game where you've got to have some breaks go your way, and it didn't seem like too many breaks went our way this season.

"But we know we're on the right track."

Like most coaches, Avent didn't want to use the word "rebuilding" entering the season, but recognizes now that with the losses of offensive standouts Ryan Pond, Marcus Jones, Jeremy Synan and Matt Payne - along with the departure of pitchers Eryk Surkamp, Clayton Shunick and Eryk McConnell - there was little choice but to start over.

"You never want to use that word 'rebuilding,' and deep down it's hard to admit that's what happened, but when you lose that many guys, it doesn't take much to make you realize you're going to have to go through at least a regrouping period," Avent said. "Probably only the UCLA basketball teams of the 1960s and 1970s can truthfully say that they only had to reload. There's been a rebuilding process somewhere along the line for all of us, and I know we're going to be better."

While the Wolfpack struggled both at the plate and on the mound en route to a 25-31 finish and the program's first losing mark since 1966, it was the quality of defensive play that may have been the most difficult aspect of the season for Avent to swallow.

"In my 21 years as head coach, this is the first team that I've had that was fundamentally unsound," he said. "That was probably more frustrating than anything else. It's just unheard of to be fundamentally unsound defensively, and that's something we're certainly going to shore up.

"We scrimmaged a lot more this fall, and on the surface it made a lot of sense, because we could get some of our new guys more at-bats and get the new pitchers facing more hitters. But I think we paid for it defensively, and this year we're going to spend a lot more time with the fundamentals of defense and just drill and drill and drill. Because it was unacceptable how we played defense this year."

On the mound, the Pack lost all three weekend starters from the previous season in Shunick, Surkamp and McConnell, all of whom signed professionally following the 2008 season. But their absence also meant the Pack lost their closer when Jimmy Gillheeney had to step into the starting rotation.

"The main thing that happened to our pitching is that not only we lost our three weekend starters, but we also lost our closer because Jimmy Gillheeney went from being our closer to our Friday night starter," Avent said. "And we lost more games from the sixth inning on this year than probably in our last three years combined.

"We just didn't do a good job in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, which is where games are won in this league."

While Gillheeney led the Wolfpack as expected with a 6-5 record and earned second-team All-ACC honors, sophomore Jack Buchanan slumped to a 2-6 mark following an impressive rookie season (3-2, 3.28 ERA).

"Last season, Jake put us within one game of the College World Series by beating Georgia, which was one of the best hitting teams, if not the best hitting team, in the country," Avent said. "And Jake just stymied them down in Athens. This year, he had glimpses of that and moments that reminded us of that outing, but he just never was Jake Buchanan this year.

"He's up in the Cape Cod League this summer, and we're hoping he's going to bounce back and be more like Jake Buchanan."

Freshman Cory Mazzoni emerged as another potential weekend starter, despite a 1-5 record.

"We really thought Cory Mazzoni would be the Sunday starter for us behind Gillheeney and Buchanan after he had a great fall and a great preseason, but that never happened," Avent said. "But down the stretch, in about his last 10 innings, I don't think he gave up a run.

"He was fantastic, he was really good against a good Clemson team that almost made it to the College World Series. I think his confidence grew as the season went along, and we're looking for big things from Cory next season."

Freshman Mike Russo, a 6-6 right-hander, finished 2-0 in three starts for the Pack, and recruits Dane Williams, Felix Roque, Chris Overman, Ethan Ogburn and Anthony Tzamzis are all likely to become immediate contributors to the Wolfpack pitching staff along with junior college transfers Rey Cotilla and Jeff Nadeau.

"Dane Williams was a 15th-round draft pick [by the Chicago White Sox] who would have been picked higher if his price tag wasn't so high, and we've also got some junior college pitchers coming in who we hope can fill some voids," Avent said. "Because pitching is where we're really going to need to step up next year. You've got to have pitching, you just can't expect to outscore people in this league."

Part II of the baseball wrap-up will focus on hitting and defense.



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