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Wins and Losses

Wolfpack baseball head coach Elliott Avent started the season with personal heartbreak and a string of losses, then led the team to the College World Series. It's how he plays the game.

Coach Elliott Avent at practice in Omaha, surrounded by baseball players.
Elliott Avent, center, with NC State's baseball team in Omaha.

On the first day of baseball practice this season, head coach Elliott Avent’s dad fell at home and broke his hip. After several days in the hospital, Jack Avent went into surgery to repair the fractured bones, but never came out. At nearly 94, it was a risky operation and he died from complications on Jan. 30.

Avent was buried under the loosening, but still strict COVID protocols of February, with friends, family and former players by the coach’s side, both at the private family ceremony and a memorial service at Doak Field at Dail Park where the elder Avent was more rooted than the pine trees beyond the right field wall.

Losing his father was the hardest in a long string of battering personal losses the coach has suffered in the last two years, from longtime baseball sports information director Bruce Winkworth to former player Chris Combs to close friend and longtime NC State soccer coach George Tarantini.

Jack and Elliott Avent posing together.
Family photo of Elliott Avent, right, with dad Jack Avent.

In fact, the Wolfpack’s fortunes turned around when the daughter of Tarantini’s widow Page Marsh, who is also NC State’s women’s golf coach, gave him a smooth green rock that Avent keeps in the pocket of his game uniform for good luck.

Nothing has ever been particularly easy in Avent’s 25 years at his alma mater, so good luck is always appreciated. Nothing, however, has ever kept him from being successful en route to 1,120 career victories at NC State and New Mexico State. He is four wins away from winning 900 at NC State.

Losing his dad, however, was the toughest thing he’s ever experienced.

His team, ranked high in all the preseason polls, lost eight of its first nine games and struggled throughout Avent’s first two months of mourning. It bounced back to be one of the hottest teams in the country at the end of the regular season, but lost a heartbreaking 1-0 decision to Duke in the ACC title game, the sixth time one of Avent’s teams has played in the championship game without winning it.

Still, the team had momentum going into the NCAA Ruston (Louisiana) Regional, where it swept all three games. It carried over into the NCAA Fayetteville (Arkansas) Regional, where the Wolfpack bounced back from a potentially deflating 21-2 defeat at the hands of top-ranked Arkansas in the opening game by winning a pair of one-run games against the Razorbacks that earned the program its third appearance in the Division I College World Series, the sport’s NCAA championship event.

Saying Goodbye

On Saturday, the Wolfpack beat No. 5 Stanford 3-2 and Monday it beat Vanderbilt 1-0, meaning Avent had the day off to reflect on his first Father’s Day without his dad.
When Avent and his two sisters said goodbye to their father back in February, the funeral director said there was a small compartment in the casket where the family could put some small mementos. The coach thought long about what eternal gift would be appropriate.

Avent thought about something from the time he took his dad to see former Wolfpack pitcher and basketball player Andrew Brackman pitch for the New York Yankees, a team of which both father and son were lifelong fans.

Then Avent remembered how much his dad loved the Wolfpack’s trip to Omaha for the 2013 College World Series, the pinnacle of his quarter century coaching career at his alma mater. Avent turned his car around, and went back home.

“My daddy loved that trip to Omaha,” Avent said last week. “And I know he’s going back with us. He will just be there in a different way.”

Avent rooted around in a drawer and found his ring from the 2013 team, and just before the family service he tucked it into the casket, watching through tears as his father was lowered into the family’s Fishing Creek Baptist Church plot in the Nash County community of Aventon.

The remarkable wins over Arkansas earned the Wolfpack a return trip to Omaha. No matter what happens during the Wolfpack’s final week in Omaha, Avent has already earned a new ring to replace the one he buried with his dad.