Wolfpack’s miracle season ended in crushing COVID disappointment

NC State overcame a 1-8 start in conference play to reach the College World Series

NC State coach Elliott Avent exits the locker room during a COVID-19 protocol delay before playing against Vanderbilt during the College World. (Rebecca S. Gratz / AP Photo)

Elliott Avent was once bitten by a copperhead while walking his dog and had to coach the postseason in a protective boot. He once performed an on-field spin move to avoid coaches and players trying to hold him back in order to continue arguing with an umpire.

Neither of those stories will ever again be the first ones that people tell when talking about the longtime NC State baseball coach.

Wolfpack baseball stretched the bounds of credulity this season, with shark-jumping plot twists and adversity to fill any number of streaming services.

The year started off as a simple underdog story, with the Pack opening ACC play at 1-8 before rallying to win 18 of the next 24 conference games to earn a trip to the NCAAs.

It wouldn’t be a Rocky movie without a sequel, and State rebooted things in the Super Regional. The Pack dropped the opener of the best-of-three series against No. 1 Arkansas, 21-2, with top pitching prospect Kevin Kopps looming with a start and a relief appearance in the next two games.

State came back to win the second game, then Jose Torres homered off Kopps in the ninth inning of the deciding game to send Avent and the Pack to their first College World Series since 2013.

“Everybody was waiting for us to hit midnight and maybe not be as good as we were playing,” coach David Esquer said, “and it just never happened.”

That alone might have been enough to earn NC State baseball the North State Journal’s 2021 College Team of the Year award, but the Wolfpack’s improbable season was about to take a turn into the land of make-believe.

State was welcomed to Omaha by Stanford and Pac-12 pitcher of the year Brendan Beck. For the second straight game, the Wolfpack beat a pitcher who would be selected early in the MLB Draft, jumping out to a 6-0 lead and beating Stanford.

NC State’s Terrell Tatum, right center, celebrates with teammates after hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning against Vanderbilt during the College World Series. (Rebecca S. Gratz / AP Photo)

That earned them a game with the best pitching prospect of them all — Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter, who would be taken No. 2 overall.

In an epic pitcher’s duel, State’s Sam Highfall matched Leiter zero for zero until Terrell Tatum homered off of Leiter for the game’s only run.

That gave State wins over three pitchers with a combined 31-4 record who would go on to earn combined signing bonuses of $9.27 million. It also left State one win away from the championship series and gave the Pack four days off while the other teams in the field worked their way back up the loser’s bracket.

The best dramas feature a little foreshadowing, and Avent provided that after the win over Vandy, saying the four days off would help State since several coaches and players were feeling under the weather.

“This bug seems to be floating around,” he said. “And I think right now it’s important for our players to get some rest.”

The bug turned out to be COVID-19, and after a long delay where it wasn’t clear if the Wolfpack would get to play at all, State took the field with 13 players available. Garrett Payne, a freshman with 8⅔ career innings was on the mound against Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker, who was 13-3 and on his way to being drafted 10th overall. He was also the only finalist for the Golden Spikes Award that State hadn’t yet faced in their last four games.

“I told him at about 1:00 or maybe later — 1:30 that he’s got the ball at 2:07 to throw against the defending national champions,” Avent said of Payne, who pitched six innings, allowing two hits.

The Pack put Highfill, Monday’s starting pitcher, on first base for the first time in his career. He would single in his first college at‑bat. He would go 3 for 3 against Rocker in a 3-1 loss.

“We showed a lot of fight today,” Highfill, the pitcher-turned-first baseman, said. “We’re willing to do it again tomorrow if we have to. We only need nine guys out there.”

Unfortunately, State wouldn’t get the chance. At some point overnight, the NCAA decided that the team State played with yesterday was too dangerous to play with today, and they were sent home.

Avent said he was “gutted” by the decision.

“I love this team, and this past month, many people that got to watch them fell in love with them as well,” he said. “Although we’re all heartbroken, this team will never be forgotten and will live in the hearts of Wolfpack and baseball fans forever.”