NC State wants to make happier memories in return to CWS after COVID-19 brought abrupt end in 2021

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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Sam Highfill jogged out of the right-field bullpen at the end of North Carolina State's practice Thursday, stopped to sign a few autographs for kids along the railing and finished his trek to the dugout to grab a drink and yuk it up with teammates.

No return trip to the College World Series was ever promised when the 2021 Wolfpack were sent home by the NCAA amid a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.

Four players from that team, including Highfill, have made it back, and they're savoring every moment. The Wolfpack play Kentucky in their opener Saturday.

“It’s so incredibly hard to get here, and we found that out the last couple years,” Highfill said. “Everybody you have to beat to get here is such a good team. The goal is always to be back and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”

The dark day in the history of Wolfpack athletics was June 25, 2021. NC State had only 13 players available for an afternoon game against Vanderbilt — the other 14 were sick, tested positive for the virus or ruled out through contact tracing — and held a team vote to play the game.

Vandy won 3-1, but the Wolfpack gave a game effort. Highfill, normally a starting pitcher, filled in at first base and went 3 for 4, even though he hadn't batted in a college game for over a year. Garrett Payne, who had pitched a total of 8 1/3 innings over six relief appearances, gave up two hits over five innings, but an error and wild pitch led to two runs. Payne was with the team this season until entering the transfer portal last week.

Even though the Wolfpack lost, they were looking forward to a winner-take-all bracket final the next day to get to the championship series. But shortly after midnight, the NCAA announced further testing and contact tracing made it impossible for NC State to continue in the CWS, and Vanderbilt was sent to the championship round.

“It was a rollercoaster of a day,” Highfill said. “So many good and bad memories from that 24-hour period.”

Coach Elliott Avent said telling his players they were going home was the toughest discussion he's had in his four decades as a college head coach.

“I didn't see a dry eye or smile the entire bus ride to the airport, entire flight home," he said.

Joining Highfill from the 2021 team at the CWS this year are Carson Falsken, Noah Soles and Logan Whitaker.

Avent said the sting of having to leave Omaha unexpectedly wore off when the team returned to its stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina, and about 2,000 fans were waiting.

“They had a microphone, and I spoke and players spoke, that's when I saw the healing process begin and the smiles come back on the faces,” he said. “And they knew how admired they were. I think that was America's team that year.”

That doesn't mean Avent agreed then, or now, with the NCAA officials who made the decision to remove his team. Three years alter, he said he doesn't dwell on it.

“It doesn’t mean I've forgotten, and it doesn't mean I've forgiven. Because I haven't,” he said.

Who would he forgive if he wanted to?

“They know who they are,” he said.

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AP college sports: https://apnews.com/hub/college-sports

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