Column: NC State’s run to Omaha exudes spirit of Jim Valvano and Kay Yow
A strong sense of nostalgia was present Sunday evening after NC State baseball claimed a series-winning 3-2 victory over top-ranked Arkansas to punch its ticket to the College World Series.
Nearly 20 minutes after the Pack formed a celebratory dogpile in the infield of Baum-Walker Stadium, head coach Elliott Avent didn’t want to accept any of the credit in his postgame availability.
Instead, he had a long list of Wolfpackers to thank. Of course, the longtime skipper raved about his players and his coaching staff, just as he always does, but the name-dropping didn’t stop there.
After two-and-a-half decades at the helm of the baseball program in Raleigh, Avent credited a collection of former coaching greats for influencing his message to his team during a weekend that wasn’t short of adversity.
“I've been so fortunate in my lifetime to be around so many great people, and those people, besides my mom and dad, shape who all these young men are,” Avent said. “They shape who I am. I've been around some of the great coaches. You can start with Tony Guzzo, who gave me my first job, and I love that man to death. He is a legend in our business. You talk about Russ Frazier, the longtime coach at Louisburg Junior College and Hall of Famer.
“Then you come to NC State and you talk about Coach [Sam] Esposito, who was so many things to so many people. Buddy Green flew down here this week to be with us. We talked to Monte Towe [Sunday] morning, Greg Williams, David Thompson, all the people that are NC State. I've been so fortunate to be around those people.”
But there was one more pair of names Avent mentioned that may have been the most fitting following a weekend performance that defied the odds: the late Jim Valvano and Kay Yow.
“When you mention passion, you got to talk about Jimmy Valvano and Kay Yow,” Avent said. “I was so 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 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.”
In 2021, Valvano and Yow’s legacies are much bigger than basketball. Their names are now synonymous with cancer research and resiliency.
Yow coached NC State women’s basketball for 35 seasons from 1975 up to her death in 2009. She passed away after fighting breast cancer for most of her adult life. She is the namesake of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, a foundation that has raised millions of dollars for research and programs that “serve the underserved in the fight against all cancers affecting women.”
Valvano was the last coach to lead one of NC State’s “big four” programs (football, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball) to a national championship, and his team's Cinderella run in the 1983 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament still holds as the most recent national title of the “big four” programs 38 years later.
But Valvano is now most known as the namesake of The V Foundation for Cancer Research, a non-profit organization that directs 100 percent of its cash donations to cancer research.
In 1993, nearly one year after receiving his cancer diagnosis, Valvano announced the creation of The V Foundation for Cancer Research during his now-legendary speech at the first-ever ESPY Awards. During that speech, he shared that the foundation’s motto would be, “Don’t Give Up… Don’t Ever Give Up.”
Valvano lived by those words until the day of his death one month later in April of 1993. But those words weren’t specific to cancer. It was an attitude to live by every day, regardless of being a coach, player or fan.
And there’s no better quote to summarize what the Wolfpack baseball team accomplished this weekend. They never gave up.
Never mind the fact that Arkansas looked every bit the part of the nation’s top-ranked team when the Razorbacks torched the Pack 21-2 in game one. If not for a one-run triple by Austin Murr in the top of the ninth inning Friday, the loss would have gone down as the worst in Super Regionals history.
It didn’t matter that the team that wins game one of the Super Regionals goes on to win the series 80 percent of the time. It also didn’t matter that no team that lost game one of the Super Regionals by 15 or more runs had ever gone on to win the series.
When nobody believed in them and all hope seemed lost, the Wolfpack dug deep and never gave up.
The Pack even found itself down 2-0 early in game two, merely outs away from Arkansas calling in its ace reliever Kevin Kopps, who entered the series with a season ERA of 0.68 in 79.2 innings pitched. But NC State’s bats caught fire in the fourth inning, highlighted by three home runs from Jose Torres, Luca Tresh and Devonte Brown.
Kopps entered the game in the eighth and pitched two perfect innings, but the Wolfpack hung on for a 6-5 win to force a winner-take-all game three Sunday.
At that point, all NC State had to do to get to Omaha was defeat that best team in the country against the best pitcher in the country in front of the best college baseball environment in the country.
Understandably, the Pack was a heavy underdog. A $100 wager on the Wolfpack Sunday morning would have netted a $260 profit. Las Vegas oddsmakers aren't generous for the sake of being kind.
And even though the Razorbacks were able to get on the scoreboard first with a one-run double in the bottom of the second, NC State never gave up.
The Wolfpack responded in the top of the third with a two-run homer from ACC batting champion Jonny Butler, giving the Pack a 2-1 lead it would maintain until the bottom of the seventh inning.
Kopps got better as the game went along but began showing signs of fatigue in the seventh and eighth when a pair of NC State batters were able to barrel him up with shots to the warning track.
The contest remained tied 2-2 going into the ninth inning, and Arkansas stuck with Kopps. On his 118th and final pitch Sunday evening, Torres ripped a solo bomb to left-center to give the Pack the go-ahead run.
The crack of Torres’ bat was as deafening as the silence of the home crowd as soon as the ball left the barrel.
The Wolfpack took its 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth, and lefty reliever Evan Justice retired the next three Arkansas batters in order to clinch the program’s first College World Series appearance since 2013.
Avent said the messaging to his team over the weekend was inspired from years of learning from Valvano, Yow and several other NC State coaching legends. If there was any correlation to Valvano’s most famous quote — “Don’t give up… Don’t ever give up” — his team certainly listened.
Now in his second career trip to Omaha, Avent will have a chance to end the department’s nearly four-decade-long “big four” title drought in the coming weeks. And if he does, don’t be surprised to see the skipper crediting the ghosts of Wolfpack past.