The NC State baseball team was deprived of a chance to win the national title when it was sent home from the College World Series because of positive COVID-19 tests among its roster.
But upon its return home to Raleigh on Saturday, the Wolfpack was given a celebration worthy of a champion.
A crowd of more than 2,000 fans, enough to fill the stands at Doak Field, gathered to greet the team upon its arrival from the airport and show their support for coach Elliott Avent and his disappointed players.
“This means as much to me as anything that has happened in my baseball career and my baseball life,” Avent said, speaking to the crowd through a bullhorn. “Words cannot express how much this means to us, our staff and our players.”
The emotional homecoming capped a surreal 48-hour stretch that saw State go from the brink of qualifying for the College World Series championship round to losing a game with a roster of just 13 available players to being told its season was over with a post-midnight phone call.
Instead of playing Vanderbilt in a winner-take-all rematch for a spot in the championship series, the Wolfpack returned to TD Ameritrade Stadium to pose for one final photo before being sent home.
The defending national champion Commodores were a free pass into the finals, where they will play a best-of-three series against SEC rival Mississippi State starting Monday.
“Words can’t even describe this feeling,” outfielder Devonte Brown said in a social media post, summing up the attitude of his entire team. “An opportunity of a lifetime, something you dream of as a little kid just snatched away in the blink of an eye.”
It’s a bad situation made even worse by the absence of transparency on the part of the NCAA, which has yet to issue a public explanation of the circumstances surrounding State’s untimely CWS dismissal.
In a statement issued earlier in the day Saturday, State athletic director Boo Corrigan described the disappointing turn of events as being “hard to comprehend and even much more difficult to accept,” but added that he and his staff “fought exhaustively for our players, coaches, staff and program, and for the opportunity to play for the national championship this team has worked so hard to reach.”
“At the end of the day, several of our players tested positive for COVID and we were not allowed to continue playing,” Corrigan said. “While we can’t discuss publicly everything that transpired, please know every effort was made to fight for the best interests of our program.”
Avent, speaking at Saturday’s impromptu gathering, was much more forceful.
The veteran coach blasted NCAA officials for their “indignation and lack of respect for what these guys have done all year.”
The Wolfpack started the season with a 4-9 record, losing seven of its first eight ACC games, before turning things around. The team advanced to the finals of the ACC Tournament before winning its NCAA regional in Ruston, La., and bouncing back from a 21-2 Super Regional loss to Arkansas to earn its third-ever trip to Omaha by beating the top-seeded Razorbacks in the next two games.
State then knocked off Stanford and Vanderbilt in its first two CWS games to move within one win of the championship series.
Because the Wolfpack never got a chance to finish the job, Avent declared victory — much to the delight of a sympathetic crowd.
“Three things will never be forgotten,” the coach said. “The class and the dignity of which these men handled themselves (in the face of adversity), tonight coming back on the bus … because of the appreciation, respect and passion of the great Wolfpack fans and the 2021 Wolfpack team that won the national championship.”