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Mike Lopresti | | December 29, 2021

After a brutal run of bad luck in 2021, NC State athletics looks to 2022 for some hope

N.C. State shuts out Vanderbilt in an intense pitching battle

Dear gods of college sports...

Pardon the blunt question, but here it is. What do you have against poor North Carolina State?

True, most everyone has had to deal with adversity in these pandemic times, but if this were a football game, what you’ve done to the Wolfpack in 2021 would be penalized 15 yards for unnecessary roughness. If this were basketball, it’d a flagrant 2. 

You know what’s happened, but let’s review.

Just Tuesday, UCLA pulled out of the Holiday Bowl 4 ½ hours before kickoff because of COVID issues. There must have been North Carolina State fans already tailgating in the parking lot in San Diego. You know, the folks who shelled out hundreds of dollars to fly 5,000 miles round-trip to be there?

”Felt lied to, to be honest,” coach Dave Doeren would tell reporters later. “We felt like UCLA probably knew something was going on, didn’t tell anybody on our side. We had no clue they were up against that. I don’t feel like it was very well handled from their university. It would have been great to have had a heads-up two or three days ago so we could have found a Plan B. Disappointing.”

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True, there are worst destinations for a wasted trip than San Diego, but still. Barely four hours before kickoff... a pre-game meal with no game. Tough one. The Wolfpack tried to find a replacement, but what could they do, put an ad up on Facebook?

That’s not all. You’ve handed out other foul fate to North Carolina State, haven’t you?

Last March, the women’s basketball team endured all the COVID obstacles to take a 20-2 record and No. 1 seeding into the NCAA Tournament. There was every reason to anticipate the program’s second spot ever in the Final Four. But all-ACC senior Kayla Jones was lost to a knee injury in the first round and Wolfpack were beaten by Indiana by three points in the Sweet 16. “I’m very, very heartbroken,” coach Wes Moore said afterward.

Then there was June in Omaha. North Carolina State was the charming underdog story in the College World Series, recovering from a 4-9 start to blow through Arkansas in the Fayetteville Super Regional, then roll into Omaha unseeded but on fire. The Wolfpack promptly upset Stanford and Vanderbilt and by then, there were constant references to the famous march by Jim Valvano’s basketball upstarts to the 1983 national championship. Here might be another. They were one win from the championship finals.

Then, as you undoubtedly remember, the positive COVID results started coming in. By that Friday against Vanderbilt, only 13 of the 27 players on the roster were cleared to play. The bottom four in the lineup had combined for no RBI, three hits and 27 at-bats the entire season. Pitcher Sam Highfill, who had not gone to the plate all year, had to play first base. He got three hits. The 3-1 loss to Vandy and star pitcher Kumar Rocker was a testament to North Carolina State grit. And the Wolfpack were to have another chance at the Commodores the next day.

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Except they didn’t. The NCAA decided overnight they were out of the tournament after four more positives. Vanderbilt advanced on a walkover, while angry words flew in every direction, about how the entire matter was handled by the NCAA, and also North Carolina State’s stance on vaccines. The Cinderella story had turned into a shocking mess.

Steven Branscombe | USA TODAY Sports Images NC State Wolfpack players wait out a delay due to players entering COVID protocol before the game against the Vanderbilt Commodores at the 2021 College World Series.NC State Wolfpack players wait out a delay due to players entering COVID protocol before the game against the Vanderbilt Commodores at the 2021 College World Series.

“What transpired over the last 36 hours, and especially since midnight last night, has been hard to comprehend and even much more difficult to accept,” athletic director Boo Corrigan said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the men’s basketball team was to be anchored this season by Manny Bates, one of the best defensive players in the nation. He hurt his shoulder 57 seconds into the season opener against Bucknell and was lost for the year. “I’m just heartbroken,” coach Kevin Keatts said.

Heartbroken. The word of the year in 2021 for North Carolina State.

And then came Monday, when the Holiday Bowl evaporated nearly before the eyes of the Wolfpack, who had a chance at only the second 10-win season in school history. Several teams lost bowl games this year, but who else was given the bad news when they almost had on their shoulder pads? Just like the baseball team went from the brink of a title run to packing its bags, eliminated not by defeat but by a virus. Plus, the basketball injuries.

That’s a pretty hard-luck 2021, right guys? In 2022, maybe you might consider cutting this school some slack.

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