After half of his team nearly beat the defending champions, a frustrated NC State coach Elliott Avent said he wanted to talk about baseball, not vaccine politics.
“I’ll tell you what; I’m not going to talk about that,” he said. “If you want to talk baseball, we can talk baseball. If you want to talk politics or stuff like that, you can go talk to my head of sports medicine, Rob Murphy.”
In the end, however, the political stuff kept the baseball from taking place and brought the Wolfpack’s season to a premature end.
At 2 a.m. Saturday morning, 12 hours before the players were scheduled to take the field for a deciding third game against Vanderbilt, the Wolfpack’s magical run was stopped by an NCAA ruling, rather than a crushing loss or raucous celebration.
Twelve hours earlier, State took the field with 13 players available, after COVID-19 testing and tracing eliminated half of the team’s roster. Freshmen and little-used reserves filled the final four spots in the batting order, including pitcher Sam Highfill playing first base and batting for the first time in his college career (and producing a three-hit day).
Reports are still incomplete, but it appears that, after State players and coaches exhibited signs of illness earlier in the week — Avent said “a bug” was going around the team after Monday’s game — the NCAA decided to test. A large number of unvaccinated players were held out of Friday’s game, and a number of vaccinated players reportedly tested positive.
Friday’s game was delayed for an hour due to COVID protocols that had much of NC State’s roster in quarantine. The Wolfpack was not allowed in their locker room or on the field for infield practice, and coach Elliott Avent said “some players had to go into a holding room.”
The incomplete team played Vanderbilt evenly for four innings before the Commodores scored on freshman Garrett Payne, who had pitched all of 8.2 innings this season, and went on to win 3-1.
The teams were expected to play in a deciding third game on Saturday to decide who moved on to the College World Series’ championship round.
State hoped to get back many of the players that were held out Friday.
“Hopefully we’ll have a lot of guys to pitch,” Avent said. “Hopefully we’ll have Reid Johnston, Sam Highfill, and a lot of guys … We’ll see.”
However, COVID and the NCAA had other plans.
“We were told that if the vaccinated players who tested positive had a negative test [Friday] night and then another negative test [Saturday] morning, that they could play,” one player’s parent told the North State Journal. “And somewhere along the way, they changed their mind on that. … At some point, they decided that the team we played with yesterday was too dangerous to play with today.”
The NCAA released a statement reading, “The NCAA Division I Baseball Committee has declared the Vanderbilt-NC State Men’s College World Series game scheduled for Saturday, June 26 at 1 p.m. Central time a no-contest because of COVID-19 protocols. This decision was made based on the recommendation of the Championship Medical Team and the Douglas County Health Department. As a result, Vanderbilt will advance to the CWS Finals. The NCAA and the committee regret that NC State’s student-athletes and coaching staff will not be able to continue in the championship in which they earned the right to participate. Because of privacy issues, we cannot provide further details.”
The NCAA policy was recently relaxed for athletes that are fully vaccinated. It reads, “Fully vaccinated student-athletes and other Tier 1 individuals with no COVID-19-like symptoms may be exempt from routine testing. Student-athletes and other Tier 1 participants who are not vaccinated must continue to undergo testing at NCAA championships.”
Unvaccinated players testing positive or the symptoms from “the bug” would have been enough to trigger the next part of the NCAA policy:
“If there is evidence of substantial or high transmission in the community, or if there are COVID-19 variants that escape the effect of the vaccine, then testing may need to resume for fully vaccinated individuals. Such decisions will be made in conjunction with local public health authorities and/or federal guidance.”
The New York Yankees had a situation earlier this year where several fully vaccinated players were forced to miss time and serve a quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.
The Yankees situation came in the middle of a 162-game regular season, and everyone held out was back in uniform a few days later. For NC State, the decision was more impactful, ending the team’s Cinderella postseason run.
“This is a heartbreaking situation and I’m gutted for everyone involved and for all those that were captivated by the heart and fight of this team,” Avent said in a statement released by the team. “I love this team and this past month, many people that got to watch them, fell in love with them as well. Although we’re all heartbroken, this team will never be forgotten and will live in the hearts of Wolfpack and baseball fans forever.”