- Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.
OMAHA, Neb. — Shortly after playing with half of a roster Friday because of COVID-19 protocols, North Carolina State coach Elliott Avent declined to say whether he has encouraged his players to be vaccinated and wouldn’t say whether he has been.
“If you want to talk baseball, we can talk baseball,” Avent said. “If you want to talk politics or stuff like that, you can go talk to my head of sports medicine, Rob Murphy.”
On the baseball end, NC State had just 13 players Friday because of COVID-related issues, used 12 of those players, and fell to Vanderbilt 3-1 at the College World Series. Avent asked his players if they wanted to forfeit Friday afternoon’s CWS Bracket 1 final — they’d need to lose twice to Vanderbilt to be eliminated — and it took roughly 6 seconds for the Wolfpack to say no. Then they almost pulled off an upset in one of the most bizarre moments in CWS history.
Using a freshman pitcher who’d thrown just 8 2/3 innings all season, and four position players who’d combined for just 27 at-bats, the Wolfpack fell short, forcing an elimination game Saturday to determine who would play in Monday’s CWS championship round.
Both teams found out about an hour before Friday’s game that the contest would be delayed so the NCAA could complete “health and safety protocols.” Shortly after that, NC State announced that several players had been put into COVID protocol and would not be available for the game.
Earlier in the day, a source told ESPN’s Ryan McGee that Wolfpack starting second baseman JT Jarrett and bullpen ace Evan Justice were out due to COVID-19-related issues. A source described Jarrett as “no longer with the team” while Justice was still in Omaha but placed in quarantine. ESPN first learned of a positive test concerning Jarrett on Friday morning.
After a game in which his short-handed team put the potential winning run at the plate in the bottom of the ninth and scattered five hits off of future first-round draft pick Kumar Rocker, Avent declined to comment about what transpired Friday morning to sideline half of his team.
“I don’t want to discuss anything that happened today,” Avent said, “because quite frankly I have no understanding of what happened today.
“I have no idea what’s going on. Zero. You know as much as I do. OK? It just hasn’t been communicated.”
Avent declined to comment on whether any of his players had tested positive for COVID-19, saying it was “personal information.” He said he didn’t know if the players who missed the game and spent Friday afternoon getting tested would be available for Saturday’s contest.
According to the CWS manual, Bracket 1 participants were to be tested on Thursday. Asked if they’d undergone testing early Friday, NC State first baseman Sam Highfill said, “No comment.”
Highfill, who pitched a gem Monday night in a 1-0 victory over Vanderbilt that knocked the defending national champions into the elimination bracket, found out about the COVID issues when he got to the stadium. A short while later, he found out he was playing first base. The freshman collected the team’s first hit off Rocker and proceeded to go 3-for-3 before finally striking out looking at a 3-2 pitch at his knees in the eighth inning. Highfill thought he’d walked and tossed his bat and was headed for first base.
The Wolfpack stranded two of their 12 runners that inning. It was one of their last chances to avoid facing Vandy again Saturday.
Highfill, who hadn’t had a college at-bat before Friday, was ready to do anything to put NC State in its first CWS championship round.
“I looked at it as more of an opportunity than a problem that we had half our team,” he said. “But I wanted to be a guy who stepped up. And so I was happy. I was excited for the opportunity.”
One of the first hints for the TD Ameritrade crowd of 20,538 that something was amiss came about 40 minutes before the game, when NC State didn’t trot out for infield practice. The dugouts were mostly empty, and at 2:03 p.m. ET, an announcement was made in the stadium that the game would be delayed.
Rocker was warming up when he received word of the delay,which lasted about an hour, and he stopped throwing and returned to the locker room.
“And then I came back out, got back into pitching mode, and then went to play,” he said.
Besides the testing, which takes place every other day, there are few reminders of the pandemic at the tournament. The CWS has been played in front of packed crowds, and there is no bubble in Omaha to separate the players, coaches and staff from the public.
According to the NCAA, Tier 1 individuals — which includes players, coaches and other travel team parties and officials — must undergo testing if they are not fully vaccinated.
“I’ve been coaching for a long time,” Avent said. “And I think I’m the — you can call it caretaker, baby-sitter or the guy that the parents drop their young men off and leave them in my care. And they’ve raised them to be the quality people that we recruit. And 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. 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.”
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