By Donna King, Dallas Woodhouse
Raleigh, NC – In the latest twist of the College World Series drama, the mothers of N.C. State baseball stars Reid Johnston and Tyler McDonough said Sunday their sons tested negative six times and were not allowed to continue playing in the CWS. The Wolfpack’s Cinderella run at the national championship was cut short over the weekend when the NCAA sent the Pack packing amid a cloud of questionable COVID protocols that imposed a testing regime on N.C. State that other teams did not have.
My son had 6 negative test and could not play Friday.
— Katherine Johnston (@kljohnston5743) June 27, 2021
The new development follows the team’s emotional return to N.C. State’s Doak Field at Dail Park Saturday. Thousands of shell-shocked, confused, and angry N.C. State supporters showed up in mass to offer a hero’s welcome to the baseball team. The group of young players captured the hearts of the sports world over the last few days.
A change.org petition urging the NCAA to reinstate the team for the CWS has 19,665 signatures as of Monday morning.
The NCAA Division I Baseball Committee announced its decision at 2:10 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday that N.C. State had been kicked out of the College World Series, just one win short of the championship series. On Friday the Wolfpack had just 13 players allowed to take the field, and finished with a 3-1 loss against Vanderbilt, raising questions about fairness, transparency, and accountability.
The NCAA’s reasoning was that two unvaccinated Wolfpack players tested positive for COVID, reportedly prompting their Saturday opponent, Vanderbilt, to request COVID tests of all players, even vaccinated and asymptomatic ones. Four came back positive, and the entire Wolfpack team was disqualified. Questions about the reliability of the tests and how many positive tests each player had remain unanswered by the NCAA, which released only the following statement early Saturday morning.
“This decision was made based on the recommendation of the championship medical team and the Douglas County Health Department,” the NCAA statement read. “As a result, Vanderbilt will advance to the CWS finals. The NCAA and the committee regret that N.C. 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.”
Omaha’s Douglas County Health Department now says the health department did not recommend N.C. State’s removal but rather told the NCAA that the department would support whatever decision the NCAA made.
“The decision to remove North Carolina State from the Men’s College World Series was made by the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee and the NCAA Medical Team due to ongoing COVID-19 transmission among teammates,” Douglas County Health Department Director Adi Pour said in a statement emailed to The News and Observer.
That denial in the complicated story came after viral social media rumors and wide-reaching anger at the NCAA and N.C. State’s administration on behalf of the team and their families.
So far, it appears that N.C. State’s opponents and the other teams in Omaha never had to have their vaccinated players retested. Critics claim the NCAA singled out N.C. State for different treatment, saying the other teams had vaccinated players who did not have to submit to retesting but could have tested positive for the virus.
“According to multiple sources, one of the main reasons for the round of testing for the vaccinated players was due to a request by the Vanderbilt staff. Since that game on Friday, several players that were forced to sit out including Terrell Tatum, Jose Torres, Tyler McDonough, Reid Johnston, Chris Villaman, and several others have since tested negative and were able to be at Doak Field on Saturday with the team,” Pack Pride reported Sunday.
The magical run
N.C. State was enjoying its best baseball season ever. The Wolfpack made it back to the College World Series for the first time since 2013 and just the third time in program history (1968, 2013, 2021), and it started out 2-0 in Omaha for the first time in program history.
It’s hard to explain how unlikely N.C. State’s baseball run was to those who are not sports fans.
Due to injuries and a previous COVID-19 outbreak, N.C. State started the season just 1-8 in ACC play. Two weeks before the end of the regular season it was not clear N.C. State would be invited to the 64-team NCAA field. But a late-season surge sent N.C. State into the postseason on a hot streak.
Playing all its games on the road, N.C. State crushed the regional round, beating Louisiana Tech twice in commanding fashion. N.C. State then went to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to face the top team in all of college baseball. The top-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks trounced N.C. State, 21-2, in game one of a best-of-three series. But State would go on to win two straight to shock the college baseball world and knock out Arkansas.
In Omaha, N.C. State took down some of the nation’s best. The Pack beat Pac-12 pitcher of the year Brendan Beck and Stanford, and then outdueled potential top overall draft pick Jack Leiter and Vanderbilt. It takes 10 wins in the postseason to win the national championship. State had won seven.
As dawn broke Friday morning, June 25, State had two chances to beat Vanderbilt in order to make it to the final three-game series to win it all, but then …
All hell broke loose
According to the rules the NCAA instituted for this year’s championships, players, coaches, and those in close contact with the team, called Tier 1 people, needed to submit proof of a negative antigen or PCR test prior to arrival in Omaha. Once on-site, all participants underwent another test and had to quarantine until the results came back negative.
At the outset of the tournament, the NCAA decided that vaccinated players were of such little risk, in a sport with built-in social distancing, they were not even being tested regularly, while unvaccinated players and Tier 1 people were required to test every other day while still competing. If there was proof of spread within a team, then vaccinated individuals would be retested if deemed necessary.
According to an ESPN report on Friday, two N.C. State players tested positive for the virus. One N.C. State player appears to have been sent home.
Friday’s 2 p.m. game was delayed. Vaccinated players showing no COVID-19 symptoms were pulled off the field. Ultimately, fewer than half of the Wolfpack team was allowed to take the field on Friday against Vanderbilt.
The depleted N.C. State team that featured 13 players, four of them pitchers, took the field at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha for an eventual 3-1 loss. N.C. State even had to have one of its pitchers fill in at third base.
A winner-take-all game against Vanderbilt lay ahead for Saturday, but N.C. State never got that far. According to D1Baseball.com, four vaccinated individuals present in the dugout of Friday’s game tested positive, prompting the NCAA to rule the upcoming game as “no contest.”
To date, the NCAA has provided no clarification on why the vaccinated players, whose tests came back negative and had no symptoms, were denied the right to play. Other than that 2 a.m. tweet on Saturday morning, the NCAA has still not answered questions and has offered no explanations. In a heartbreaking photo, some N.C. State players went to the stadium to take a final picture at 4 a.m.
Reaction was fast and furious
Anger was viral on social media over the weekend, filling feeds with rumors, accusations, and memes of Dr. Anthony Fauci in a Vanderbilt jersey.
“While you were sleeping, the NCAA was busy making one of the slimiest, least transparent, and down-right cowardice moves in their history,” Joey Wolferetti of Packinsider.com wrote Saturday, expressing the anger and frustration of N.C. State fans.
“This isn’t about health and safety, this is about strong-armed compliance and making an example on the national stage. …Why are they able to continue to have these powers?” he wrote. “The entire stadium is shoulder to shoulder. No fans were tested. No one knows which fans were vaccinated and which ones were not. Omaha has all restrictions off. Masks are optional. And Omaha is just doing that because they are following the science coming down from every agency out there.”
Elected leaders across North Carolina have condemned the NCAA. House Speaker Tim Moore, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, said the NCAA was wrong.
The @NCAA was wrong in disqualifying the @NCState BaseballTeam and denying the team a chance at the national championship. We will be inviting the team to the House of Representatives and honoring them for the incredible sportsmanship they showed. #ncstatebaseball #ncga pic.twitter.com/jjr5b2iJ2F
— Speaker Tim Moore (@NCHouseSpeaker) June 26, 2021
Wolfpack athletic director Boo Corrigan said Saturday the university can’t force students to get vaccines.
“Vaccination for our students is a personal decision, he wrote in a statement. “The university cannot require vaccines for our students, including our student athletes. Since vaccines were not available until after the start of the season, some of our players decided to wait until the completion of the season in case of side effects. We respect their rights to make personal health care decisions.”
“Words can’t even describe this feeling,” right fielder Devonte Brown tweeted. “An opportunity of a lifetime, something you dream of as a little kid just snatched away in the blink of an eye.”
Pitcher Matt Willadsen tweeted,
Will never forget this feeling. 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. https://t.co/P3evtjhhSI
— Matt Willadsen (@MattWilladsen) June 26, 2021
Words cannot describe what my teammates and I are feeling right now. A team that put countless hours working towards a national championship and having an opportunity for one and @NCAA doing everything in their power to take it away from us. I’ll go to war any day with these guys pic.twitter.com/ZaOdqBgDh3
— Dalton Feeney (@DaltonFeeney) June 26, 2021
The emotions were shared by fans as they spilled into Doak Field this weekend. Students and families met the team, still groggy from the painful flight into Raleigh-Durham International Airport, greeting them with thundering applause.
“This means as much to me as anything that has happened in my baseball career and my baseball life,” Coach Elliott Avent said. “Words cannot express how much this means to us, our staff, and our players.
“I’ve been here 25 years, and y’all know I love N.C. State and I’ve loved all our teams. I don’t think we’ve had a group of players show so much heart and character and fought through so many things to not only bring so much joy to Wolfpack fans, but they’ve captured the heart of the whole nation.”