After four months of competition, a plethora of midday games and weekend series, and then a three-week marathon postseason, North Carolina and N.C. State's paths on the baseball diamond cross again Sunday afternoon. Only this time it's in the College World Series in Omaha.
It's almost too much to wrap one's head around the fact that the Diamond Heels and Wolfpack are going all the way to Omaha to play a baseball game, but this historic matchup has stakes significantly higher than the traditional bragging rights and ACC divisional jockeying that comes with the usual UNC-NCSU battles in sport.
This time they're going head-to-head with a national championship on the line, as the winner will have a favorable position in the CWS bracket, while the loser will have to fight with less rest and extra games---with every game an elimination game---to get back on track for a shot at the championship finals.
"We've played them (N.C. State) enough. They know us. We know them. I'll grab my folder for N.C. State and I'll go to The Drover (restaurant) and eat a big steak and show up and play Sunday," said UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes after UNC defeated South Carolina in the Super Regional.
Immediately after taking down the Gamecocks, Forbes' first inclination after entering the UNC clubhouse was that for this particular matchup---unlike all other first game matchups for the Tar Heels in Omaha over the last eight seasons---he wouldn't have to put together a detailed scouting report on an unknown opponent.
"Coach Forbes and Coach Jackson, they're excited because they don't have to do a scouting report. That's the first thing Coach Forbes said (after beating South Carolina)," said UNC head coach Mike Fox. "But yeah, we know a lot about them (N.C. State)."
For the third time this season against UNC, the Wolfpack are throwing left-handed ace Carlos Rodon, and while the Tar Heels might know what they're up against in the hard-throwing Southpaw, that doesn't necessarily mean success is inevitable.
Rodon held Carolina in the ACC Tournament to just one run, helping force the Tar Heels to go 18 innings before they finally took down the 'Pack in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
The time before that when Rodon faced UNC in Raleigh he defeated the Diamond Heels, and certainly the Wolfpack are pinning a great deal of their hopes in its first CWS appearance in 45 years on their stud hurler.
"They're going to have their ace (Rodon) on the mound, like always. We're looking forward to the challenge, and we're just looking forward to be going back (to the CWS)," said senior center fielder Chaz Frank. "It's going to be pretty exciting. In-state team. Big rivalry of course. It's going to be a fun game. It's going to be an exciting game."
"They're a great team (NCSU), and hopefully we'll just go out there and win. We'll do the same things, no matter who it was (we're playing)," said catcher/outfielder Brian Holberton. Definitely it helps (having seen Rodon), no matter who the pitcher is if you go out there and see him a few times. That (the familiarity) will be with us, and we all know that."
"No matter who it was (pitching against us), we're going to go out there and battle."
UNC is countering Rodon with its own lefty ace, Kent Emanuel, and while Emanuel wasn't spectacular in his start in the Super Regional, he got the final two outs of the series Tuesday on just two pitches.
The last time Emanuel pitched in Omaha he was masterful, stifling Texas in a complete game 3-0 shutout gem to keep UNC fighting for another day in the 2011 College World Series.
And if there's any one pitcher that Carolina can send out to the mound and feel totally confident that he can go inning-for-inning for Rodon, Emanuel has to be at the top of the list.
"He (Rodon) is good. He's one of the best in the country. He's a big-time competitor, but we feel like our guys, he (Emanuel) has been known to match anybody. And that's probably exactly why he needed two pitches (to win the Super Regional), and then going to Omaha to get him right back on track where he wanted," said Coach Forbes.
Forbes isn't anticipating another extra-long game like that one last month in Durham between UNC and NCSU, partially because of the ballpark they'll be playing in in Omaha.
"You look at the game against N.C. State, that was just a classic. 18 innings. They struck out 22 times and they struck out 23 times. You kind of throw that out the door (at TD Ameritrade Field in Omaha). The lights are going to be better. The ballpark is a little bit bigger," Forbes said.
Unlike the Wolfpack, who have nobody within their program familiar with CWS competition, several members of the UNC squad played in Omaha two years ago.
How---or if---that '11 experience rubs off on the Diamond Heels this time around remains to be seen.
Will N.C. State come out jittery and feeling the pressure? And for that matter, will UNC?
Does either team lose its poise on the big stage, or does the familiarity of the surroundings bring out the best in some of Carolina's veterans?
We won't know the answers to those questions of course until things get rolling Sunday afternoon.
"My class and the class above me have both been (to the College World Series). That probably helps a little bit just knowing the atmosphere and everything that comes with it. So it will be fun to go out there and play some baseball," said Holberton.
UNC's season won't be over of course if they lose to the Wolfpack---they'll still have an elimination game Tuesday and will have to play out of the loser's bracket---but they know that in order to go all the way and claim this year's NCAA title, they're going to have to take the best shots of some of the nation's elite teams that are still standing.
"State got a big win (in the Super Regional) and we got a big win. 30 miles apart and we're going all the way to Omaha together. The biggest rivals out there, so it'll be fun out there on that stage, and hopefully we'll perform well," said Holberton. They've played with the same pressure we have. Their games were real close just like ours. I think both teams are well-prepared."
"If you're going to win a national championship, you have to beat somebody like Carlos Rodon. So it's right off the bat," added Coach Forbes.