No other team in college baseball, and perhaps no other sports team anywhere, has had tougher endings to its last three seasons than the NC State baseball team.
In 2020, the Pack’s season was cut short to just under one month due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, every other college sports team was in the same boat, but NC State had a 14-3 record and was off to a promising start.
In 2021, an amazing run to the College World Series saw the Pack one win away from playing for a national championship, but it was once again COVID-19 issues that forced NC State out of the tournament, causing anger among the Wolfpack fan base towards the NCAA.
And in 2022, it was once again the NCAA who had the final say on the Pack’s fate as the NCAA selection committee shockingly left NC State out of the NCAA Tournament despite the team being projected as a near-unanimous lock to make it.
After last season’s run to the College World Series came to an abrupt end, there were high expectations for this year’s squad to get back to the same spot. Whether fair or unfair, it was Omaha or bust. While many saw the Pack as deserving of a spot in the big dance, the Wolfpack’s absence from the tournament’s field of 64 is the ultimate disappointment.
That isn’t to say that this season in its entirety was a disappointment, however. This NC State squad provided as many memorable moments as ever, and the level of fan excitement surrounding the program was as high as any in recent memory.
Perhaps the most noteworthy storyline throughout the season was the play of designated hitter Tommy White, a freshman batting sensation who took the nation by storm. State fans learned White’s name as soon as the first game of the season when he launched three home runs over the wall, then went on to hit a whopping nine homers in his first eight games, including two grand slams.
White quickly became one of the most popular athletes on campus, earning the nickname “Tommy Tanks” and gaining attention across the country as the Pack won its first eight games. Just like his team, however, White cooled off a bit after his hot start, going nine games without hitting a home run as the Pack lost eight of its first 11 games in the month of March.
After losing its first two ACC series against Notre Dame and Florida State, the Pack seemed to get back on track, winning three of its next four conference series, including sweeps against Georgia Tech and Boston College and a road series win against Clemson.
In the meantime, White was starting to reheat, hitting two home runs in a game against Florida State and in two games against Louisville. It was during this stretch that White also broke the NC State single-season freshman home run record with his 14th of the season in a win over High Point.
The good times wouldn’t last, however, as NC State had a less-than-stellar final month of the regular season. The Pack lost three of its final four series, including dropping two of three games at home against UNC and an embarrassing sweep at the hands of Wake Forest in the regular season finale. To make matters worse, head coach Elliott Avent also announced in April that sophomore and preseason All-American pitcher Sam Highfill would miss the remainder of the season due to injury.
Entering the postseason seemingly on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, the Pack needed a strong performance in the ACC Championships, which it got with a bounce-back win over Wake Forest and a huge win over then-No. 5 Miami to clinch a spot in the tournament semifinal.
Once again, White made the headlines, hitting another three-homer game against Miami for 26 on the season, which broke the program single-season record of 25 set by Turtle Zaun and Tracy Woodson.
Just a game later, White hit another home run in the semifinal against Pitt for 27 on the season, which set the NCAA freshman single-season record as the Pack rolled past Pitt and into the ACC championship game.
With his 27th HR of the season, @tommywhite44 officially sets the #NCAABaseball freshman record. The previous record of 26 had stood since 1990.🎥 @ACCBaseball @NCStateBaseball pic.twitter.com/aCgE2oLZLc— NCAA Baseball (@NCAABaseball) May 28, 2022
The promising tournament run ended with a loss to UNC as the Pack dropped its second consecutive ACC championship game, but with its strong performance over the course of the week, it looked as though the team had solidified a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Many others seemed to agree as nearly every NCAA Tournament projection not only had NC State in the field, but as a near-unanimous two seed and an apparent lock to make it.
But not even a year after the stunning exit from the College World Series, the Pack’s season once again ended in shock when during the NCAA selection show, the Pack was left out of the tournament altogether in a move that left fans, coaches and analysts perplexed and dumbfounded.
Despite having an RPI ranking of 33rd and an overall record of 17-16 against ACC opponents, the NCAA cited the Pack’s weak nonconference strength of schedule and lack of quality series wins as the reason why it was left out, which echoed sentiments expressed when the NC State men’s basketball team was left out of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
It’s the latest heartbreaking ending for an athletic department and a fanbase that has experienced too many in less than a year’s time, but this isn’t about lamenting on what could have or should have been. It’s about recognizing all that was good in what was a fun and promising season.
This year’s team was almost a completely new team from the Omaha-bound group from a year ago. Only seniors Devonte Brown and J.T. Jarrett returned from the regular batting rotation, yet this year’s team held its own at the plate, ranking in the top half of the ACC in batting average, hits, runs scored and home runs.
After two of its main pitchers from last season left for the pros, the Pack’s pitching rotation went through some growing pains this year, especially with Highfill’s injury. However, sophomore right-hander Matt Willadsen and senior lefty Canaan Silver emerged as consistent starting pitchers, and sophomore hurler Chris Villaman proved himself to be one of the best closers in the ACC.
The Pack also provided plenty of season highlights. Aside from White’s dominance, the team had several high-scoring outings and won four games via walk-offs.
WALK OFF WOLFPACK WIN! pic.twitter.com/ogK7QqBHZL— #Pack9 ⚾️ (@NCStateBaseball) April 13, 2022
The NCAA Tournament snub has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. White’s decision to enter the transfer portal hasn’t helped with the angst of Wolfpack fans, but that shouldn’t overshadow the memory of what truly has been a great season in which fan support of the program was at an all-time high.
This season, just like last season, ended with a gut-punch, but as Avent has proven time and time again throughout his tenure, the Pack is going to be just fine.