Forty-five years after helping N.C. State make it to the College World Series for the first time in program history, Newton natives and former Wolfpack baseball players Dennis Punch and Gary Yount reflected on their team's remarkable run to Omaha.
Punch and Yount were two of three Red Devils who played in back-to-back College World Series in 1967-68.
At NCHS, Punch and Yount were basketball and baseball teammates with Johnny Yancy, who went on to become a rival at the University of North Carolina.
"Johnny was a heck of pitcher," Yount said of Yancy, who played in the 1967 College World Series for the Tar Heels. "He went to Carolina on a baseball scholarship. We played against each other. You've got three guys from Newton-Conover High School and lived in Newton who all played little league baseball together. We all played in the College World Series — not at the same time."
Entering the 1968 college baseball season with Punch and Yount on their roster, the Wolfpack were predicted to finish seventh in the ACC.
However, the team eventually made it to the College World Series as the No. 7 seed.
N.C. State was coming off of an 11-11 season in 1967, which included a 6-7 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The 1968 Wolfpack squad was comprised of a miscellaneous grouping of players, which included N.C. quarterback turned shortstop Darrell Moody and former Hickory High School standout and second baseman Clement Huffman.
Moody was one of three N.C. State football players on the baseball team, including Yount and left fielder Fred Combs.
Incoming freshmen baseball players were also allowed to play for the first time in 1968. The Packs' roster included three of them, including Mike Caldwell, Joe Frye and Chris Cammack.
All three were on scholarship, as well as returning player Tommy Smith, while the rest of the 'Pack roster consisted of walk ons and athletes from other sports at the school.
N.C. State started the season 6-4 in its first 10 games, but would only lose two of its final 16 regular season games.
"All through the year, we had different guys picking us up — whether it was stealing a base or making a defensive play or getting a clutch base hit," Punch said. "You talk about a team with everyone contributing. This was one of those teams. It had to be that way or we would have gotten beat every day."
State's remarkable run to the NCAA tournament was completed with a 4-0 shutout in its season finale against Wake Forest, which included a one-hit performance from Caldwell, a southpaw pitcher for the 'Pack.
Punch, who played first base, credits N.C. State second-year manager Sam Esposito with a lot of the team's success.
"He was hard-nosed," Punch said of Esposito, who played professionally with the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals. "He was from Chicago and his language left a lot to be desired. Our team would agree that he absolutely got the most out of every player on that team. The moves he made just worked."
After clinching its first ACC title, N.C. State advanced to one of 16 NCAA districts, which was held at Sims Legion Park in Gastonia.
Among the teams playing in the Gastonia district were at-large teams Florida State and East Carolina, as well as Southeastern Conference champion Alabama.
The Wolfpack would go on to win 3-1 against Crimson Tide in their district opener followed by a 7-5 victory against the Pirates — setting up a showdown with the Seminoles.
Florida State won the first game of the series, forcing a one-game playoff with the winner going to Omaha.
Caldwell predicted during a press conference before the second and deciding game that the 'Pack were "one run and nine innings from Omaha."
He backed his words up with a six-hit performance in a 4-1 win against Florida State, helping cement his team's first trip to Omaha.
"He was little and couldn't throw hard, but he was one of those guys that mixed up his pitches," Punch said of Caldwell. "He'd beat you."
Spending time in both left field and behind the plate as a catcher, Young said Caldwell was a crafty ace on the mound.
"When I would catch Caldwell, I would sit back and wonder how they missed the ball," Yount said. "I believed sometimes I could hit him."
N.C. State opened its first College World Series appearance on June 10, 1968 with an 7-6 upset of second-seeded South Illinois.
The Wolfpack scored three runs with one out on the top of the ninth inning against the Salukis to pull off the improbable win.
"We had some talented players, but when it came time to play, we played," Punch said.
After using four pitchers in that first round victory, a depleted N.C. State squad dropped its next contestto St. Johns in a 12-inning affair, 3-2.
One loss away from elimination, Punch and Yount played a big part in potentially N.C. State's biggest win in the World Series — a 6-5 victory against Texas in the consolation bracket.
Playing in more than 100 degree heat in front of a pro-Texas crowd, 'Pack starting pitcher Alex Cheek gave up five runs to the Longhorns — all in the first inning.
State clawed back to eventually tie the game at 5-5, setting the stage for the Newton-Conover High School duo.
Yount's go-ahead single up the middle in the eighth inning scored Punch, who had reached base earlier in the inning on a double.
N.C. State eventually won the game, 6-5.
"That win was big because Texas was one of the better baseball teams in the country at the time," Punch said.
A coin flip in the next round of consolation bracket pitted N.C. State against No. 1 overall seed Southern Calfornia, who remained unblemished in three winner's bracket games.
Behind nine eventual Major League baseball draftees, USC ended N.C. State's run in Omaha with a 2-0 victory — the only time the Wolfpack were shut out that season.
The Trojans eventually defeated Southern Illinois, 4-3, to win the 22nd College World Series.
Long after their playing days, all of the members of the 1968 N.C. State baseball team have stayed tight-knit.
Every member of the squad is still alive to this day.
"We've remained close," Punch said. "There have been a core group of 6-12 of us that try to get together twice a year — once in the spring and once in the fall. It keeps us together."
This year's Wolfpack baseball team has used the 1968 N.C. State team as motivation to make it back to the College World Series for only the second time in school history.
The team's pass code to get into the locker room at NCSU is "1-9-6-8."
Each player's locker also has a plaque with their name and the year 1968 engraved beside it.
After finishing second in the Atlantic Division this season behind Florida State, the Wolfpack (49-14) have won five games in a row this postseason to advance to the College World Series.
Punch sees a lot of similarities and differences between this year's N.C. State team and the 1968 squad.
"They have very few weaknesses, but one of them is they don't score a lot of runs," he said. "They win the 4-2 games and the 3-1 games. They've scored more recently. Their pitching staff in no way compares to ours. We had three pitchers. They've got 2-3 quality starters and 7-8 players in the bullpen who could play for anyone in the country. They hit and run. They use speed, defense and clutch base hits. Those are similarities with the team we had."
Punch will reunite this weekend in Nebraska to root on his former team with eight of his former teammates — Alex Cheek, Ben Bradsher, Chris Cammack, Darrell Moody, Dave Boyer, Francis Combs, John Lancaster and Mike Caldwell.
Most, if not all, of these former 1968 Wolfpack baseball team members will return to Omaha for the first time since that first College World Series appearance.
N.C. State plays against rival and top-seeded North Carolina (57-10) in the first round of the College World Series at 3 p.m. Sunday.
It's a rematch of the ACC tournament championship game, which the Tar Heels won 2-1 in 18 innings in Durham.
Punch is anxious for the game and the chance to watch it all with his fellow Wolfpack baseball alumni.
"I cannot wait to be there with that sea of Red on one side and sea of Blue on the other side," he said. "Either (N.C. State or UNC) could win it all. State is going to have to play really well and score some runs. Carolina probably on paper is the best team in the country. You look at that eight-team group and there are only three seeded teams that made it out there – Carolina, LSU and Oregon State. It's going to be exciting to go, be a part of it and share that experience with our teammates."