MCWS 2024: NC State is back in Omaha after controversial 2021 exit

NC State stamps ticket to Omaha with 8-5 win over Georgia (0:17)

Both NC State and Georgia rip multiple home runs but the Wolfpack prevail to clinch the final spot in Omaha for the College World Series. (0:17)

OMAHA, Nebraska -- Dalton Feeney's baseball career ended in a quiet room at the downtown Omaha Embassy Suites. It was sometime around 1 o'clock in the morning on June 26, 2021, and Feeney, a senior pitcher for the Wolfpack, was holed up in his room because he'd just tested positive for COVID-19.

He was vaccinated and asymptomatic. Just a few hours earlier, he'd pitched four innings in a gritty 3-1 loss to Vanderbilt, a game in which NC State had just 13 players because of positive tests, sickness and contact tracing, a game that set up a winner-take-all bracket final for a trip to Men's College World Series championship series.

Then late that night, as his team held a hastily planned meeting downstairs, Feeney started receiving a series of group team texts that included messages such as, "Sorry it had to end this way," and "Love you guys."

"I'm like, 'What's going on downstairs?'" Feeney said. "And I get a knock on the door. [It was] one of the guys who tested negative. 'He said, 'We're done. The season's over. They're kicking us out.'"

The NCAA Division I baseball committee declared the bracket final between the two teams a no contest due to COVID protocols. Vanderbilt went to the championship round, and the Wolfpack went home in a MCWS filled with controversy, sadness and eternal what-ifs.

Today, the Wolfpack are back in Omaha for the first time since 2021, playing Kentucky at 2 p.m. ET in an opening-round game. And in some way, that first sports year back from the pandemic shutdowns seems like a lifetime ago, with PCR tests, caution, confusion and controversy in an unprecedented space.

NC State coach Elliott Avent does not want to take anything away from this team by dredging up the past, and said Thursday that the sting of 2021 wore off "immediately." When the Wolfpack arrived home that weekend, he said they were greeted by about 2,000 fans waiting for them at the stadium. That '21 squad to this day calls itself "America's Team," and Avent and NC State, he said, have moved on.

But they haven't forgotten.

"That team was so unbelievably close," Avent said. "Oh my gosh.

"I don't play with a chip on my shoulder. I don't ever go out and say, 'I'm going to avenge something. Because if we win [in 2024] that doesn't avenge that team. What happened to that team was wrong, and nothing can ever change it. You just learn to live with it."

Just four players remain from that '21 team -- Sam Highfill, Carson Falsken, Logan Whitaker and Noah Soles. Highfill was a freshman pitcher listed as a position player on the lineup card in NC State's last game of the season on June 25, 2021, and collected three hits that day.

"It was a roller coaster of a day," Highfill said. "So many good and bad memories from that 24-hour period.

"It's so incredibly hard to get here. We found that out the past couple of years. It's so incredibly hard. Everybody you have to beat to get here is such a good team. The goal is always to be back. I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but I definitely thought every year, we had a shot. That's all you need is [to] find a way to the postseason and then you're five or six wins away."

Anthony Holman, the NCAA's vice president of championships and alliances, said Friday that he's "thrilled" that the Wolfpack are back in Omaha, and happy for Avent and his program. Holman called the events of 2021 "traumatic and upsetting" and said that the NCAA was trying to find any avenue to keep NC State in the tournament.

He declined to comment on whether the NCAA received death threats after the decision, saying he didn't want to "give voice" to any backlash.

"Let's just say it was unpleasant," he said.

Holman said it wasn't the first time that academic year that a team had been removed from a sports championship, and in each case that they went with information they had at the time, trusted the medical professionals, and respected local guidelines. Going into the day's testing, Holman said, NC State was told that if it had any more players test positive that it would prompt the removal of the Wolfpack from the tournament. When that happened, the late-night announcement became somewhat of a formality.

Feeney, who was still confused about what had happened, heard a knock on his door.

"It was one of the guys who tested negative," Feeney said. "He was just kind of like, 'Screw this COVID stuff,' and was bawling. He gave me a hug and he's like, 'We're done. Our season's over. They're kicking us out.' And then I got emotional."

About 30 minutes after the NCAA issued its statement about NC State's exit, a group of Wolfpack players headed to TD Ameritrade Field and posed for pictures near home plate in front of the MCWS logo.

The team flew home, but Feeney and a handful of other players who'd tested positive had to stay in the hotel for another two days. Feeney said they had to wait until a "COVID flight," a small chartered plane with the quarantined players, became available.

Some Powerade and food was left at their hotel doors, and a part of Feeney wanted to just leave. He'd already graduated and figured he was exempt from repercussions. But he didn't want to walk around downtown Omaha and get anyone who was immunocompromised sick. So he stayed in the room.

Feeney could not bring himself to watch the MCWS finals.

"I already knew who the champs were," he said.

He watched movies on his phone and texted his teammates. They FaceTimed him during the stadium celebration in Raleigh.

When the quarantined players got back home, they were confined to their apartments for another three or four days until they tested negative. Their teammates stuck around for what Feeney called a last hurrah, spending a week together playing golf and swimming and talking until everyone went on to the next phase of their lives.

Nine players from the 2021 team were drafted. Feeney, who was drafted out of high school by the Detroit Tigers in the 40th round, did not hear his name called that summer. He took a job in banking in Kansas City, and two weeks ago was hired at a bank in his hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota.

Almost immediately into his first week of work, he told his boss that if the Wolfpack made it to the MCWS, he was taking off work and making the nine-hour trip to Omaha.

Shortly after NC State knocked off Georgia in the Athens Super Regional, Feeney called Avent. He congratulated his coach, and told him he was taking Friday off to see them. Avent told his old player that was pretty bold, but it made perfect sense.

Feeney wasn't going to miss another game in Omaha.

"It was one of the best times of my life," he said.