North Carolina State’s baseball team was one win from its first College World Series final before a disastrous encounter with NCAA health protocols led first to a strange loss Friday and then a decision to declare Saturday’s game a no-contest, ending the team’s run in Omaha.
Friday’s game against reigning champion Vanderbilt veered into the bizarre, when the Wolfpack found out less than two hours before the first pitch that they would have just 13 eligible players. They elected to play on, and were competitive in a 3-1 loss that forced a deciding game Saturday. But in the middle of the night, the NCAA’s Division I Baseball Committee declared that game a no-contest because of health protocols, putting Vanderbilt back in the final and ending N.C. State’s season. The decision, according to the committee, was made on the recommendation of the championship’s medical team and the local health department.
“The NCAA and the committee regret that N.C. State’s student-athletes and coaching staff will not be able to continue in the championship in which they earned the right to participate,” the committee said in a statement. “Because of privacy issues, we cannot provide further details.”
The news brought to mind several other similar cases: VCU, forced out of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament the day before its first game; the Cleveland Browns, whose roster and coaching staff were hit by covid-related absences before an NFL playoff game; and golfer Jon Rahm, forced to withdraw from a recent PGA Tour event he was leading after a positive test.
The Wolfpack had won their first two games of the College World Series, putting them within a game of the final before Friday’s chaos. Second baseman J.T. Jarrett and all-conference relief pitcher Evan Justice missed the Friday game because of coronavirus issues, according to ESPN, which “first learned of a positive test concerning Jarrett on Friday morning.” The network reported that Jarrett was “no longer with the team” and Justice was quarantined in Omaha, where the College World Series is played.
Back in N.C. State’s locker room, Coach Elliott Avent said players were periodically removed and taken to a “holding room.” The team’s pregame on-field routines were delayed, and the NCAA pushed the game back an hour.
N.C. State, which was given the option to play or forfeit, began the game with nine position players and four pitchers, while Vanderbilt fielded ace Kumar Rocker, arguably the country’s top pitcher. Without first-team all-ACC shortstop Jose Torres, third baseman Vojtech Mensik slid into his spot and committed two errors. Freshman pitcher Sam Highfill started at first base, while pitcher Garrett Payne took the mound in place of expected starter Matt Willadsen.
The Wolfpack entered the day undefeated in the College World Series after beating Vanderbilt on Monday. It could afford the loss, but Avent said it took six seconds for his team to decide to play, and at times, it looked like the decision would pay off.
Highfill didn’t have an at-bat all season, but he hit two singles off Rocker. N.C. State had the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh but left them that way, stranding seven runners in the final three innings.
After the game, Avent brushed off questions about his roster being diminished.
“I don’t want to discuss anything that happened today because, quite frankly, I have no understanding of what happened today,” he said during his postgame news conference. “There’s a lot of confusion. [Players] didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know what was going on, so I couldn’t really tell them [what was happening].”
Avent was asked if he encouraged or required his players to be vaccinated.
“My job is to teach them baseball, make sure they get an education and keep them on the right track forward, but I don’t try to indoctrinate my kids with my values or my opinions,” he said. “Obviously we talk about a lot of things, but these are young men that can make their own decisions and that’s what they did.”
He was asked if he was vaccinated, which prompted a vague response.
“I’m not going to talk about that,” Avent 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.”
Highfill, who finished the game with three hits, praised his team’s resilience and said he was confident it could compete Saturday with a limited roster. He was asked if players discussed getting vaccinated and if they had “any idea that [Friday morning’s events were] kind of brewing.”
“Yeah, no. I’m kind of the same way Coach is. I don’t really have much of a clue what exactly is going on, so we’ll just do whatever they tell us we got to do,” he said.
Avent said some of the players who were removed underwent testing during the game. As of Friday, he was still hoping those missing players would be back for a Saturday conclusion. Reality was far more disappointing.