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NC State returns to Men’s College World Series 3 years after it was abruptly sent home

image_6483441 (3)by:Noah Fleischman06/13/24

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OMAHA, Neb. — The last time NC State left Charles Schwab Field, the site of the Men’s College World Series, the Wolfpack didn’t exit on its own accord.

The Pack, which was 2-1 in the 2021 iteration of the tournament at the time of its premature departure, had to leave Omaha due to COVID-19 protocols within the program. The NCAA sent the team home, even though it played competitively against Vanderbilt with 13 players on the active roster. 

That bitter taste still lives in the Wolfpack’s mouth three years later. Most of that roster is gone, but NC State is back on college baseball’s biggest stage for the first time since. 

For Pack skipper Elliott Avent, it’s a double-edged sword. The pain isn’t there anymore, but he hasn’t forgotten that experience. It’s still fresh in his mind. 

“I never thought about the sting of ’21 since then,” Avent said during his pre-College World Series press conference Thursday afternoon. “It doesn’t mean I have forgotten, and it doesn’t mean I forgive because neither one exists, but I don’t ever think about it.”

Avent said his chat with his roster during the middle of the night, telling his team their run was cut short, even though they had not lost two games, is still the toughest thing he has ever done in his 28 years as a head coach in Raleigh. 

Though the Pack has vivid memories of the last time it was in this position, NC State is looking forward to this year’s event. 

NC State ace Sam Highfill, who is the likely starter in Saturday’s opener against No. 2 Kentucky, played first base and went 3-for-4 against Vanderbilt in that “Pack13” game. But he, like the rest of the squad is focused on the 2024 Wolfpack. 

“It was a roller coaster of a day. I have so many good and bad memories from that 24-hour period,” Highfill said. “Obviously it means a lot to be a part of something that was that special and etched in Wolfpack history, but every time I think about that 13, I think about the 14 guys that couldn’t be out there that day.

“It was great,” Highfill continued, “and I am excited to be back.”

NC State’s path back to Omaha wasn’t easy either. The Wolfpack, which battled illness and injury for most of the season, embraced Jim Valvano’s “Never give up” mantra. Valvano, a long-time mentor for Avent when the two overlapped in Raleigh, appears to have helped the Pack back to glory — even if it wasn’t the easiest road. 

Highfill knew the Pack had a shot, no matter what. 

“The goal is always to be back,” Highfill said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I definitely thought every year we had a shot. All you need is to find a way to the postseason and then you’re five or six wins away.

The Wolfpack did just that with three wins in the Raleigh Regional and two more in the Athens Super Regional to punch its ticket back to Omaha. But while NC State was one win away in the pivotal Game 3 at Georgia, graduate right-hander Logan Whitaker, who embodies not giving up after battling a pair of injuries early in his career, was the arm selected to get the Pack back to this moment. 

But he hadn’t been there before. The last time the Wolfpack made it to that point, Matt Willadsen was the one who was called upon to guide NC State past Arkansas in 2021, but he’s out for the year with a torn UCL. So Whitaker turned to him for a 30-minute phone call the night before. 

They talked about the approach, and Willadsen followed that up with a supportive text message. Those two things helped Whitaker find a way to power through 4.1 innings with seven strikeouts, which was enough for the Pack to turn to the bullpen to finish the job. 

That exchange, which Avent learned about earlier this week, showed the team’s bond with one another — further proving that the coach’s approach has been successful. 

“When you hear something like that from a player, it’s what you try to do as a coach,” Avent said. “You try to build those relationships to where they play for each other. That’s when it becomes very special, and that’s when you feel like maybe you’ve done your job.”

NC State’s team has grown since it was last in Omaha. The Pack has a tight bond this year, and while it is playing for those that had their trip to the College World Series cut short in 2021, it is ready to begin a new chapter. 

Now, the Pack will look to turn the page and write a new series in NC State baseball history as the fourth team to make it to Omaha — looking to become the first to lift a trophy at the end of the championship series. 

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