A season to remember, ending to forget for NC State

Looking back on a hard-to-believe College World Series

North Carolina State closing pitcher Evan Justice (34) reacts after securing the final out for the Wofpack's 1-0 victory against Vanderbilt in a baseball game in the College World Series, Monday, June 21, 2021, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

Five years ago, just as college baseball’s postseason was about to begin, NC State head coach Elliott Avent suffered a freak accident.

While walking his 10-week old rescue puppy, Avent and the dog were confronted by a copperhead. In an effort to protect the dog, Avent was bitten on the ankle and hobbled around during State’s ACC and NCAA tournament games. That didn’t stop him from executing a spin move to people trying to prevent him from reaching an umpire after he objected to a call during an NCAA game.

It was an “only Elliott” moment to end them all, as the improbable and unlikely always seems to find the quirky, outgoing, fiery Wolfpack skipper.

That reputation was pushed beyond unlikely and into impossible as NC State’s 2021 jumped the shark in a trip to Omaha that pushed the bounds of credulity. It also epitomized the term “snake bit” as the Wolfpack’s season ended in the most “NC State stuff” way imaginable.

The fact that NC State was even in Omaha was a shock, after the team started ACC play by losing eight of its first nine conference games. Showing grit and resilience, the Pack battled back to finish five games over .500 in the league and a berth in the ACC Tournament championship game.

Again, State’s run appeared to be over in the NCAA super regional, when top-ranked Arkansas beat the Pack 21-2 in the first game. NC State again bounced back to upset the Razorbacks in back-to-back games to earn a spot in the College World Series.

After an opening game win over Stanford, State moved to 2-0 in Omaha with a win over Vanderbilt in an epic pitcher’s duel between freshman Sam Highfill and top draft prospect Jack Leiter.

That’s when the Cinderella story turned into Alice in Wonderland.

State’s trip through the looking glass began on Friday, when the Wolfpack arrived at TD Ameritrade Park and wasn’t allowed into their locker room.

“I kept getting not much said,” Avent said. “First, they kept us out of our locker room. Then some of the players had to go back into a holding room, then they delayed infield (practice pregame). Finally, we were told these are our options.”

The team, who Avent said earlier in the week had been battling “a bug” turned out to have several positive COVID tests. When the dust cleared, more than half of the Pack’s roster was held out of the game due to testing and tracing, including several vaccinated players who had tested positive.

State had two options, neither of them good, and Avent met with his team to discuss them.

“There was a lot of confusion,” he said. “They didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what was going on, so I couldn’t tell them. When you have guys committed to the program, I don’t think you do things from the top.  The decision should be made by people who did the work, the people on the ground. I just told the team what we were dealing with. Two options are forfeit or play with 13 guys. I told them, ‘My vote is to play. Let me know what you want to do.’”

“It took probably about six seconds,” he said of the team’s response.

Play ball.

Thirteen players were available. A freshman with 8.2 career innings pitched was taking the mound. Highfill, who was the pitching hero on Monday, was playing first base for the first time and facing one of college baseball’s top pitchers in Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker. The bottom four batters in the lineup had a total of 27 at bats this season.

The team stood like Monty Python’s Black Knight, more missing than whole, and squared off with the defending champions, claiming it was merely a flesh wound.

It all almost worked, too, as the Pack put a scare into Vanderbilt before falling, 3-1. Payne pitched into the sixth inning. Highfill got three hits in his first three career at bats, and the Wolfpack impressed the nation with its heart and grit.

With the first reel of the Disney movie in the can, State began preparing for Saturday’s rubber game with Vandy, hoping to get back several players who would be retested overnight.

In the dead of night, however, at 2:00 AM, the clock struck midnight on the Wolfpack season.

For reasons still largely unknown, the NCAA backtracked and decided not to let State do it all over again. There would be no game on Saturday, and, for Avent and the Pack, no games at all for the rest of the year.

Vanderbilt advanced on what was officially declared a no contest, and State was left to fly home to a hearty welcome by the fans it inspired.

As the team heads to the offseason, the MLB Draft will do what COVID did last week and take some of State’s key contributors from the season. But the kids returning the roster have gotten the ultimate trial by fire and will be looking for the chance to settle things on the field next time.

Play ball.