To say that the NC State baseball team had a crazy 2021 season would be an understatement.
The Pack truly had a season unlike any other team in college baseball in which it experienced some of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
It all began in late February when the Pack got off to one of its rockiest starts in school history, starting 4-9 overall and 1-8 in ACC play. Pitching was a big issue as the team was giving up an average of 7.5 runs per game, and the offense was struggling as well, having only scored more than four runs in an ACC game once during that stretch.
That all started to turn around at the perfect time when the Pack traveled to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina. The Pack swept the three-game series against the Tar Heels, outscoring them 23-6.
From that point on, the Pack caught fire, winning 19 of its last 25 regular season games, including a win on the road at then-No. 7 Notre Dame, two series sweeps against ranked opponents, and a series win over then-No. 9 Florida State to end the regular season. One of the highlights of that stretch was a series-opening win over Florida State in which sophomore catcher Luca Tresh hit a walk-off home run.
After starting the season looking like one of the worst teams in the ACC, the Pack entered the ACC Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league and the No. 3 seed, looking like the team that many expected. With its fourth win of the season over Pitt in pool play and a win over Georgia Tech in the semifinals, the Pack found itself with a chance for its first ACC Championship in three decades in the championship game against Duke.
However, the Pack fell 1-0 to the Blue Devils, mustering just five hits and leaving six runners on base. It was a heartbreaking loss for a team that had such a great season turnaround and was playing in front of a majority-NC State crowd in Charlotte.
The Pack entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed and headed to Ruston, Louisiana for the NCAA Regional. One of the questions heading into the tournament was whether or not the Pack would be able to bounce back after that heartbreaking ACC Championship loss, but the team seemed to have no hangover as it cruised through the regional, beating Alabama 8-1 and beating host Louisiana Tech in back-to-back games 8-3 and 14-7, respectively.
With the sweep in Ruston, the Pack advanced to its first Super Regional since 2013 and was one of the last 16 teams remaining. However, the team had to travel to take on the No. 1 overall seed Arkansas, who had been the best team in college baseball the majority of the season.
The Pack’s trip to Arkansas got off to a rocky start as the team was throttled by the Razorbacks 21-2 in one of the most lopsided losses in Super Regional history in the series opener. Many may have written off the Pack after that, but the Pack did what it had done all season long by responding to adversity.
After a strong start in the second game, the Pack hung on to even the series with a 6-5 win. In the third game, the Pack shocked the whole country by pulling off a stunning 3-2 upset, sending the team to its first College World Series since 2013 and the third in school history.
The Pack kept it rolling in Omaha, Nebraska, knocking off No. 9 Stanford in the first game 10-4 and No. 4 Vanderbilt 1-0 in the second game for its first 2-0 start in the College World Series in school history. The team was now one of the last four teams left and was one win away from the College World Series Final.
That, of course, would all come to a crashing halt as the Pack was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to health and safety protocols, the most heartbreaking of heartbreaking endings. However, that did not occur before a shorthanded NC State squad took on Vanderbilt again in a performance that was so characteristic of the resilient nature of the team, ultimately falling 3-1.
The story of the 2021 NC State baseball team is one of resilience. Every time the team was knocked down, it got back up. Whether it was after the 1-8 start to ACC play, the heartbreaking ACC Championship loss, the blowout loss to Arkansas in the Super Regional or even losing several players before the second game against Vanderbilt, this team responded every time, and the only thing that stopped the Pack from getting to the top was something that was out of its control.
What also made the 2021 team special was the way it was made up. This team had no “one guy” that was the star and that every other team and MLB scout had its eye on, but it had a group of guys who played well together and made winning plays when it needed to.
Early in the season, Tresh was the hot hand, hitting seven home runs in the first eight games. As the season went on, junior left fielder Jonny Butler became the team’s most consistent player, leading the ACC in batting average and becoming a contender for ACC Player of the Year by the season’s end.
In the ACC Tournament, junior second baseman J.T. Jarrett had some of the team’s biggest hits, hitting go-ahead RBIs in wins against Pitt and Georgia Tech. In the NCAA Regional, it was all about junior right fielder Devonte Brown, who hit two home runs against Alabama and hit a go-ahead grand slam in the Regional-clinching win against Louisiana Tech.
Freshman shortstop Jose Torres was the star in the Super Regional, hitting a home run in all three games, including the game-winning home run in the series finale.
In the College World Series, Butler was once again the star in the opener against Stanford, hitting a two-run home run and tallying five RBIs, while junior designated hitter Terrell Tatum hit a solo home run against Vanderbilt, which was the game’s only run.
If there’s a group on this team that has gone through more than perhaps any other, it’s the pitching staff. From being perhaps the weakest group on the team after the rocky start to the season, the pitching staff underwent a massive transformation and became one of the strongest groups in the ACC, if not the country.
The team ace was junior Reid Johnston, who won six of his last eight starts, including a one-run performance against Alabama in the Regional. Freshman Sam Highfill won his last five starts of the season and played his best at the end of the season with wins against Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament, Louisiana Tech in the Regional, Arkansas in the Super Regional and a shutout against Vanderbilt in the College World Series that will go down as one of the best pitching performances in NC State history. Plus, Highfill tallied three hits in the next game against Vanderbilt.
Freshman Matt Willadsen pitched a gem in the ACC Championship, allowing just one run, and helped deliver round-clinching wins in the NCAA Tournament against Louisiana Tech and Arkansas. Freshman Chris Villaman bounced back from a couple of tough outings in the middle of ACC play to become a very effective relief pitcher, throwing 4.1 shutout innings in the ACC Championship, tag-teaming with Willadsen to help deliver the win against Arkansas and getting the final out in the Regional-clinching win against Louisiana Tech.
After starting a couple of ACC games at the beginning of the season, junior Evan Justice became NC State’s version of Mariano Rivera as one of the best closing pitchers in college baseball, delivering the final outs in his last eight consecutive appearances. Even two guys who were not in the regular rotation of pitchers, freshman Garrett Payne and redshirt junior Dalton Feeney, stepped up to hold a full-strength Vanderbilt to three runs in the third game of the College World Series.
The Pack was also a phenomenal fielding team, making web-gem plays throughout the season. Junior first baseman Austin Murr even won the 2021 Rawlings Gold Glove Award for the nation’s best first baseman.
This NC State team was a true giant killer, beating some of the best teams and pitchers in the country. In four consecutive games, the Pack knocked off No. 1 Arkansas twice on the road, including a win over national player of the year Kevin Kopps, Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Brendan Beck and No. 9 Stanford, and top-5 MLB prospect Jack Leiter and Vanderbilt. The giant-killing nature of this team was in a way reminiscent of the legendary 1983 NC State men’s basketball team that won the national championship.
The NC State baseball team also resembled the 1983 team in the amount of excitement that it created throughout the fanbase. Every NC State fan from far and wide came together to support the baseball team, including 1974 national champion and greatest basketball player in school history David Thompson, 1983 national champion Dereck Whittenburg and women’s basketball coach and back-to-back ACC Champion Wes Moore, all of whom made the trip to Omaha, alongside countless others.
The NC State baseball team showed resilience unlike any other this season, bringing out the best in both itself and, by season’s end, the best in the NC State fanbase, giving fans so much joy and so many memories. There is nothing that can take that away.