As NC State fans, it’s not often we feel an entire college sports community behind us. Possibly no team has worn the Cinderella slipper better than the 1983 Wolfpack Basketball team, but since then, it’s felt like rare occasions that NC State has the hearts of the college sports world.
Then came this 2021 Wolfpack Baseball team. The bad start, the midseason turnaround, the hot streak. Everything aligned and this team became fun to watch. They became fun to root for. They went to Ruston, LA, and won a regional as the #2 seed. They went to Fayetteville, AR, and beat the #1 team in the country. They started 2-0 in the 2021 College World Series, taking down two of the top arms in the country on the biggest stage.
People were behind NC State. This team had won the hearts of the country.
Despite being in the drivers’ seat, they still seemed like the underdogs, and still with College Baseball Goliath (Vanderbilt) and their two-headed pitching monster to slay.
Then Friday afternoon hit. A scheduled 2:00pm start got delayed as player after player after player was plucked from the Wolfpack’s roster due to COVID testing protocols leaving the squad with just 13 active players with which to do battle against Kumar Rocker and the defending national champions.
No matter where blame for the situation lies, NC State went from feeling like the underdog to being quite possibly the largest underdog in a single game in the history of the CWS. Four starting position players out. Three others playing out of their normal positions. The regular Saturday starting pitcher getting the start at first base without an at-bat on the season to his name. A true freshman starting pitcher who hadn’t even been on the mound for double-digit innings this whole year. Just four total pitchers available for the game. And all this against the massive, All-Everything, reigning CWS MVP on the mound opposite them.
Yet there they were. Our Wolfpack. Battling their hearts out, undermanned but not lacking in heart.
The freshman starting pitcher, Garrett Payne, going 5.0 innings of two-hit ball, allowing just a single earned run (three runs overall) and working out of jams like a seasoned veteran. A reliever who has battled injuries throughout his career going 4.0 innings without allowing a run. The pitcher-turned-first baseman going 3-for-4 at the plate. A 13-man squad out-hitting the team that entered the CWS as the favorites to win the championship.
You could feel the college baseball world backing the Pack. You didn’t need to see message boards, or check websites, or look at Twitter feeds. You could feel it. Through the TV, you could feel it. This felt like a game NC State was destined to win.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. The breaks in the game all went Goliath. The opportunities created by State mostly squandered. Vanderbilt got the win.
Sometimes the stories don’t go the way you feel they should. Sometimes Goliath hits back.
But this isn’t over.
NC State gets another crack at Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon at 2:00pm. With the prospect of adding back players that missed today’s game, the Wolfpack get to line back up against Goliath and the other half of their monster tomorrow. Even if those players don’t come back, even if State is again at 13 players for the contest, they will enter knowing that they can get the job done.
They proved that. To themselves, to the college baseball world, and certainly to the team across the diamond.
A hand behind the back - it doesn’t matter. This Wolfpack team is a fighter. And they certainly won’t go down without one.