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Leaders of the Pack

NC State baseball returns to the College World Series for the fourth time in school history and the second time in four years. The Wolfpack begins play Saturday at 2 p.m. against Kentucky in Omaha, Nebraska.

A baseball player in street clothes greets a long line of fans while holding an NCAA trophy
The NC State baseball team greets fans outside Doak Field at Dail Park Tuesday afternoon

Sunday evening, not long after NC State’s baseball team lost an 11-2 decision to Georgia in Game 2 of the NCAA Athens Super Regional, Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent’s phone rang.

The name that popped up on Avent’s phone screen belonged to one of the most important leaders in the long history of NC State: Gen. Hugh Shelton.

Unlike all the other phone calls and the 475 texts he received that evening, Avent immediately answered. When the founder of NC State’s Shelton Leadership Center, the 14th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a veteran of multiple tours of combat calls, it’s best to pick up the phone.

Initially, the 68-year-old Avent, who has won more games than any coach in Wolfpack athletics history, was concerned that the retired four-star general’s health may have taken a bad turn. Instead, he heard a familiar voice with a little pep in its tone.

The 82-year-old Shelton — a longtime friend of Avent, who grew up in eastern North Carolina near Shelton’s Edgecombe County hometown — was calling to talk baseball, good times for Wolfpack athletics and, as always, the importance of strong leadership.

“The general sounded like he was 50 years old again,” Avent said Tuesday. “We talked for 20 minutes and he sounded just awesome. He’s just so proud of the team and so proud of the university where he has spent so much time.

“It was just a great conversation.”

Coach Elliott Avent speaks with reporters outside of the baseball stadium

On Monday night, coincidentally wearing the team’s special camouflage-style uniforms usually reserved for military appreciation events, Avent’s team beat the Bulldogs 8-5 to advance to the NCAA College World Series for the fourth time in school history.

Avent received many more phone calls that night, ranging from former high school classmate Gov. Roy Cooper to major league baseball All-Stars Trea Turner and Carlos Rodon to football coach Dave Doeren. Women’s basketball coach Wes Moore and his entire staff met the team bus when it returned to Doak Field at Dail Park Tuesday afternoon.

It was all just part of the outpouring of support the baseball team received as it made a brief stop in Raleigh before heading to Omaha, Nebraska, Wednesday morning to begin preparation for the two-week College World Series. The Wolfpack begins play against Kentucky on Saturday at 2 p.m., a game that will be broadcast on ESPN.

Players exchange high-fives with a long line of fans outside of the baseball stadium
A baseball player wearing three hats on top of each other greets fans
A baseball player signs the jersey of a young fan

The baseball team’s success — which includes winning the NCAA Raleigh Regional and the Athens Super Regional — continues a remarkable calendar year in which the men’s basketball team won its first ACC Championship since 1987 and both the men’s and women’s teams reached their respective Final Fours. There have been individual and team successes in wrestling, which won its sixth consecutive ACC title, and swimming and diving, where the men’s team won its fourth consecutive league crown and the women finished third.

Avent’s players have been inspired by these other successes. Many were at the Belltower celebrations that followed big wins by the men’s and women’s basketball teams throughout March and April.

“It was awesome to see that on display,” said senior pitcher Logan Whitaker. “That’s a side we don’t get to see a lot because we are always playing. To see other sports succeed and to see how that brings the community together is an awesome sight.”

For Avent, who attended NC State in the 1970s and was a graduate assistant in the 1980s before being named head coach in the summer of 1996, returning to Omaha for the third time in his career to play for a national championship contributes to the celebration of success that has permeated campus since the beginning of March.

“I’ve been a part of the school for a lot of years now,” he said. “I used to call the ’70s the glory years of NC State athletics.

“This year seems to be similar to what I remember from back then.”