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NC State starter Sam Highfill dazzles to open Athens Super Regional

image_6483441 (3)by:Noah Fleischman06/08/24


ATHENS, Ga. — Eight days after NC State right-handed pitcher Sam Highfill gutted out a six-inning start to open the Raleigh Regional at Doak Field, he took the mound looking to set the tone in the Athens Super Regional. 

The graduate student has been around the block more than once, including a start and win in the Men’s College World Series in 2021, but he has had to overcome a lower back injury since then. Though he pushed through not feeling his best in last week’s stellar start, it didn’t seem like that carried over when he started against No. 7 Georgia at Foley Field on Saturday afternoon. 

Highfill, instead, seemed to be on the same wavelength he was in during the 2021 season. He helped guide the Wolfpack to an 18-1 win with six solid innings on the rubber. 

The Apex, N.C., native retired the first eight batters he faced and limited the Bulldogs’ power-hitting lineup to just one run on four hits with three walks and a pair of punchouts. 

“What that guy has given to our baseball program, you can’t say enough about him,” NC State coach Elliott Avent said. “He was terrific today against a great offensive lineup. Once again, a tip of the hat to Sam Highfill.”

Even when Highfill conceded a base runner, he was able to work around it — even if that meant having to find a way to get Georgia star Charlie Condon out. In the third, that’s what he had to do, and he induced a fly out to center to end the inning. 

Highfill had an 11-run cushion to work with by that point, so pitching to the nation’s home run leader was not as big of an adventure as it could have been with a tight score. In all, Highfill was able to keep Condon quiet with an 0-for-3 day at the plate that included a walk. 

As Highfill pushed through each inning, he was able to allow the Wolfpack to build a 14-1 lead by his final frame of work. His experience coupled with the large advantage on the scoreboard was what Georgia coach Wes Johnson thought made him the most effective against the Bulldogs.

“The experience is good, but I don’t think we put any pressure on him to see really what that truly experience would play out,” Johnson said. “I’ve said for years, the best pitching coach is run support. When you’re up 11-0, a guy like that with that kind of experience typically can carry you into that sixth inning. I think that’s where you saw his experience come into play today.”

“He pitched to the scoreboard, which is what experienced pitchers do.”

Even as Highfill tossed with a big lead, he appeared to approach it with the same intense focus that he had in the first inning that featured a level score. 

The sixth was the most trouble that Highfill found himself in, and he was still able to escape a jam — even as his velocity fell into the upper 80s. Georgia’s Slate Alford doubled down the line to open the frame before Highfill plunked Tre Phelps

That gave Georgia two on with nobody out, but Highfill stayed composed. He was able to get Henry Hunter to fly out and got Sebastian Murillo to ground into a double play three pitches later. 

Mission accomplished. 

“That’s just what he does,” NC State junior catcher Jacob Cozart said of Highfill’s ability to get out of the inning unscathed at 111 pitches. “He can pitch. He’s really, really good at his craft.”

Cozart, a finalist for the Buster Posey Award for the best catcher in college baseball, has caught Highfill over the course of the last three seasons. He has seen the same pitcher every start, and the Super Regional stage in front of a sold out crowd was no different.

“It’s just what he’s done all year,” Cozart said. “He’s the same guy day in and day out. He’s going to come in there and he knows his stuff is going to beat you. He’s confident in it. We just know we’re going to get a quality start out of him and we know we’re going to get a chance to win a ball game. 

But for graduate outfielder Noah Soles, who has watched Highfill’s journey in Raleigh, the latest iteration of the pitcher’s postseason success is one to stack up against the rest. 

“I think he was unbelievable today,” Soles said. “Very tough. I personally look up to him. I think he’s a great leader on and off the field. He’s just who everybody looks up to.”

Highfill did more than enough to give the Pack a chance to win the game as the bats powered NC State past Georgia to get within a win of another trip to Omaha. Highfill was a key piece of the last trip to the College World Series, and his ability to set the tone for the weekend might get NC State back to that stage. 

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