OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — North Carolina State baseball players who were one win away from playing for a national championship reacted with anger and confusion to their team's removal from the College World Series because of COVID-19 protocols.
Vanderbilt advanced to the CWS finals after the NCAA announced early Saturday that the Wolfpack would not be allowed to continue in the tournament. The Commodores will meet Texas or Mississippi State in the best-of-three finals starting Monday.
NC State had only 13 players available during its 3-1 loss to the Commodores on Friday. The teams had been scheduled to meet again Saturday in a winner-take-all Bracket 1 final. The NCAA Division I Baseball Committee declared that game a no-contest.
“This decision was made based on the recommendation of the Championship Medical Team and the Douglas County Health Department,” the NCAA said in a statement. “As a result, Vanderbilt will advance to the CWS Finals.
“The NCAA and the committee regret that NC State’s student-athletes and coaching staff will not be able to continue in the championship in which they earned the right to participate. Because of privacy issues, we cannot provide further details.”
Douglas County Health Department spokesman Phil Rooney said the health department did not recommend NC State's removal but told the NCAA the department would support whatever decision the NCAA made.
Rooney said the health department provides assistance to the NCAA in testing and contact tracing but is limited in mandating procedures related to COVID-19 because there is no local directed health measure in effect.
The Wolfpack overcame starts of 4-9 overall and 1-8 in Atlantic Coast Conference play to win 33 of their last 43 games. They made the 64-team NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 regional seed and beat host Louisiana Tech to win the Ruston Regional. They then went to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and won the best-of-three super regional against No. 1 national seed Arkansas.
NC State made the CWS for the third time, and first since 2013, and beat Stanford 10-4 in its opener and Vanderbilt 1-0 in its second game to reach the Bracket 1 final.
NC State players and coaches gathered at home plate to take pictures around the CWS logo early Saturday, after the rain-delayed Texas-Mississippi game was completed.
“This is a heartbreaking situation and I’m gutted for everyone involved and for all those that were captivated by the heart and fight of this team,” coach Elliott Avent said. "Our medical staff and our players have been incredible this season with all they’ve done to keep us safe and get us ready to play, day in and day out.
"I love this team and this past month, many people that got to watch them, fell in love with them as well. Although we’re all heartbroken, this team will never be forgotten and will live in the hearts of Wolfpack and baseball fans forever.”
Avent didn't answer directly when asked after Friday's game if he encouraged his players to get vaccinated. He said players could decide for themselves. Avent also declined to say if he had been vaccinated.
Avent also said after the game that he was confused about the process that led to the NCAA clearing only 13 of the 27 players on the roster.
“Quite frankly,” he said, “I have no understanding of what happened today.”
The NCAA requires unvaccinated players, coaches and staff to undergo COVID-19 testing every other day at championship sites. The Wolfpack had at least one player test positive on Thursday, and that triggered contact tracing procedures led to 13 other players being ruled out of Friday's game.
Additional testing and contact tracing prompted the NCAA to decide the Wolfpack could not continue in the tournament.
Matt Willadsen, who had been the scheduled starter Friday but did not pitch, tweeted he would never forget the feeling of hearing the news.
“Our coaching staff deserve better. Us players deserve better. Our fans deserve better. Everyone that believed in us deserve better. We all deserve better. @NCAACWS you have ruined the biggest moment of our player’s lives so far. What a joke.”
Vanderbilt returns to the finals for a second straight time. The Commodores won the 2019 CWS. There was no tournament last year because of the pandemic.
The pandemic heavily disrupted college sports over the past year and some teams dropped out of an NCAA championship event because of COVID-19: the VCU men’s basketball team, the Michigan and Notre Dame men’s hockey team and the Rice women’s volleyball team.
More NCAA baseball tournament coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/college-world-series and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25