- Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.
OMAHA, Neb. — Vanderbilt’s baseball team was slumbering at the downtown DoubleTree Hotel when coach Tim Corbin awoke at 1:30 Saturday morning and noticed he had a text message. It was from Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Storey Lee, who was informing him of one of the most bizarre moments in College World Series history.
The NCAA had just declared Saturday’s game against NC State, which was supposed to be played in 12 hours, a no contest because of COVID-19 protocols. Vanderbilt was going to the CWS finals; NC State was going home.
Corbin rolled over and woke up his wife, Maggie. They couldn’t go back to sleep.
“I felt like when the boys woke up, I wanted to give them some type of information,” Corbin said Sunday, in his first Zoom call with media since the NCAA decision. “And that’s really all I cared about was them, as far as getting up and seeing that type of message … I just wanted to get to them as quickly as possible. So we did.
“I’m sure it was a little bit confusing, but we used yesterday as a day to talk through it, and I told them that once we get to the ballpark today, we move forward. It’s just like life. There’s nothing you can do about it. Life circumstances happen. You deal with it.”
Corbin was still dealing with it a day and a half later. The coach who has taken Vanderbilt to the CWS five times, who loves Omaha so much that he stopped there during a road trip with his wife last year after the pandemic canceled the season, who last week likened the CWS to Disney World, did not appear to be enjoying things as much Sunday.
He didn’t want to make it to the finals this way. He wanted to settle it in the dirt. While Mississippi State celebrated its walk-off win over Texas on Saturday to advance to the best-of-three championship series that begins Monday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App), Vanderbilt players spent the day together waiting in a quiet, uncomfortable space.
It wasn’t the first time a team had been sent home during an NCAA championship because of COVID-19 protocols. Anthony Holman, the NCAA’s managing director of championships and alliances, told ESPN on Sunday it has happened seven times before. But none of the other exits had been so dramatic, or deliberated over on social media.
“I think the framing of it is really important,” Holman said. “Given what we know about COVID, with the number of cases or continued spread in a short window of time … In any other walk of life in this pandemic, folks would’ve been like, ‘OK, yeah, of course that’s what you’re going to do.'”
Holman said the NCAA has held 284 postseason events and 65 championships involving more than 2,700 teams since February, with more than 130,000 tests administered. Only 0.04% of those tests have come back positive.
Holman said he wasn’t sure if NC State was the furthest a team had ever gotten in a tournament before having its season abruptly end because of positive tests, or what the NCAA calls being “not cleared” after testing. According to CWS protocol, each player who’s unvaccinated must undergo testing every other day, and on Tuesday, the day after the unseeded Wolfpack upset No. 4 seed Vanderbilt 1-0, Holman said it was NC State’s turn to be tested, and one player tested positive.
The night before, in the team’s postgame news conference, NC State coach Elliott Avent said his team welcomed the rest that came with advancing in the winners bracket. Avent said a few players and an assistant coach had been battling what he called “a bug.” The next day, a player tested positive.
The NCAA championships medical team started contract tracing and identified a teammate as a close contact, quarantined him and started daily PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing on him. For three days, he was clear, and the player — and the NCAA — were hopeful he’d eventually be able to take the field.
Then came Friday, a 1 o’clock rematch with Vanderbilt. The Commodores would have to beat NC State twice to make it to the finals. That morning, the player under quarantine tested positive. And NC State reported that two other players were showing symptoms. They were administered antigen tests, which came back positive. PCR tests were conducted. The results were the same. It was less than two hours before the game.
“Now, you’ve got multiple cases with one team,” Holman said. “So that has to go to the championships medical team and you’ve got to dissect that. It’s not just the results, but the contact tracing, and all of this is happening in a very small window.”
NC State was at the stadium while the medical team was deciding what to do. The game was delayed. An hour later, the Wolfpack’s 13 vaccinated players took the field against Vanderbilt. Sam Highfill, Monday’s winning pitcher, played first base. Their bottom four hitters had a combined 27 at-bats heading into the game. But NC State almost pulled off another shocker, eventually falling 3-1.
That night, the entire team took PCR tests, which are more invasive and are sent to a lab. While the six-member medical team was awaiting results, it consulted with the Douglas County (Nebraska) Health Department over various scenarios. The results came back late Friday night, during a long rain delay in the Texas-Mississippi State game.
“There were additional people not cleared,” Holman said.
Vaccinated players were among the positive cases. The NCAA’s decision came swiftly, and both teams were contacted. At 1:10 a.m. CT, the NCAA issued a statement. About 30 minutes later, a group of NC State players gathered at TD Ameritrade Field and posed for pictures near home plate in front of the CWS logo. Holman said the NCAA was unaware that the Wolfpack were going to the stadium. Asked if the NCAA would have approved the late-night visit, Holman said, “The likely answer would’ve been no” because of quarantine issues.
NC State declined to comment for this story Sunday.
Holman told ESPN that most of the Commodores have been fully vaccinated. Vanderbilt is requiring its students to be fully vaccinated by the fall semester.
Corbin said that he sympathized with NC State’s players and fans. He said he couldn’t grasp the “level of hurt” they’re feeling now.
“For us, we get to move forward,” Corbin said. “I understand the other side. I do. We’re very empathetic and sympathetic to that. But we have no control over that, regardless what anyone insinuates or what anyone says.”
The defending national champions know they probably won’t be the crowd favorites this week. The extra day off to rest two future top-10 draft picks — both pitchers — might present an advantage. Corbin wouldn’t say if one of those pitchers, Jack Leiter, would start Monday night. Leiter, who joins teammate Kumar Rocker as the nation’s strikeout leaders, threw 123 pitches a week ago in Vanderbilt’s 1-0 loss to NC State.
Barring any other unexpected developments, the focus will shift back to baseball, and that’s all Corbin wants. In a normal year, the Commodores would have celebrated making the finals by running around the field or dog-piling on the mound. They wouldn’t have found out about it via a late-night text.
Corbin has waited for this moment for more than a year, when he came to a desolated baseball town last summer and yearned for another shot at a championship, another June that was normal.
“We’re just playing baseball,” Corbin said. “That’s all we can do. We stay in our lane. But the kids are fine. They are 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids that are spending their last days with one another and they are enjoying their ability to be here.”
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