A key NC State player will not be available for the Wolfpack's push toward their first College World Series title and another has been placed in quarantine while the school and the NCAA scrambled to assess others on the team, delaying the start of Game 11 between NC State and Vanderbilt.
Starting second baseman J.T. Jarrett and bullpen ace Evan Justice were out for the semifinal game against the Commodores due to COVID-19-related issues. NC State lost the game 3-1 and will now play Saturday for their last shot at the CWS final.
A source described Jarrett as "no longer with the team," while Justice was still in Omaha, Nebraska, but was placed in quarantine. ESPN first learned of a positive test concerning Jarrett on Friday morning. Both players were absent as the team arrived at Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park for pregame warm-ups and took to the field around 1 p.m. ET ahead of the first pitch, originally scheduled for one hour later. The game started at 3 p.m. ET.
Coach Elliott Avent said he found out there was a problem 45 minutes to an hour before the game. He told ESPN during an in-game interview that players not with the team were getting tested Friday afternoon and, if the results were negative, would have a chance to play if the Wolfpack had to play Saturday.
"An undisclosed number of players from the team have been put into COVID-19 protocol and will be unavailable for today's game," the team said in a statement before the game. "NC State, the NCAA and appropriate parties are working together to monitor the situation."
NC State began Friday's game with only four pitchers, and five regulars in the lineup. One of the four pitchers, Sam Highfill, started at first base.
Jarrett had started all 55 of the Wolfpack's games this season, hitting .251 and committing only two errors. Justice has been an innings-eating reliever, earning All-ACC honors with a 5-2 record and 13 saves. He has earned a pair of saves in this College World Series, closing out wins against Stanford and Vanderbilt.
As the first pitch of CWS Game 11 approached, NC State and the NCAA were still working to determine if more Wolfpack players or the roster of their CWS opponents might be affected via contact tracing. Vanderbilt is the only remaining NC State opponent in Omaha. Its other opponent, Stanford, was eliminated Wednesday night.
NC State would have to lose Friday and again Saturday to not reach the CWS finals for the first time. Avent told ESPN before the game that he gave his available players the choice of forfeiting the Friday game with the hope of having some players back on Saturday. The 13 players told him they wanted to play.
Avent also said he would pull his team off the field during the game and forfeit if he believed his players were risking injury. Avent was scheduled to speak at a news conference following the game.
Avent told reporters Monday that an illness was running through the team but made no mention of it possibly being COVID-19. He said associate head coach Chris Hart had been sick for five or six days and that Jarrett and pitcher Cameron Cotter weren't feeling well.
This is the first COVID-related issue at the College World Series, which began one week ago when teams participated in their first Omaha-based workouts. Throughout the College World Series, teams have not interacted off the field in any official capacity, media sessions have been held via Zoom and team practices have been closed, though general social interactions have been relatively unrestricted as per the local rules in Omaha and Nebraska. Attendance for the games has been full capacity throughout the College World Series.
The overwhelming majority of the 2021 college baseball season was played without significant pandemic-related issues, even as crowd sizes were increased, many states began lifting mask and social distancing mandates, and NCAA basketball, volleyball and men's ice hockey postseason tournaments were forced to send teams home and/or alter their schedules.
The 2020 college baseball season was canceled in mid-March as the pandemic swept the nation, and the College World Series was shuttered for the first time since it started in 1947.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.