Surreal is a word that is often used when sports deals cruel blows or amazing rallies but the scene outside the media room where NC State’s players and traveling party stood after TCU somehow came back from a seven-run deficit with only four outs to go fits that criteria.
Members of the team just walked around stunned, some crying. The NC State staff and administrators held their heads down knowing that a special ride had just ended. However underrated or overlooked as they were, the Wolfpack undoubtedly had the ability to reach the College World Series for a second time in three years and it looked like the team was only two wins from doing so.
At the postgame press conference only seniors showed up to speak to the media--a credit to head coach Elliott Avent since it allowed players that have contributed to the most successful era in Wolfpack history a final act as members of the team. Unfortunately, it also meant the knife would be twisted as the questions asked cemented the fact that the end had truly came.
Logan Ratledge--as steady a team leader as NC State has ever had--along with Jake Fincher both sat at the table to talk to the media trying to maintain composure. Despite only attending NC State for two years, Bubby Riley took it the hardest as he had yet to come to grips with the loss. Tears streamed down his face and he obviously had taken to the team in the short time he spent with the Pack.
Jake Armstrong, brought to address the media as a sign of togetherness and respect despite not actually playing in the game, sat staring directly ahead with a near-catatonic look.
On the surface, this is a senior class that would seem to understand how to cope with a tough loss.
In 2012, a rain delay cut short Carlos Rodon’s start against Florida and the Wolfpack lost to the Gators in extra innings in the Super Regional.
The following season at the College World Series, Trea Turner hit a blast against UCLA that would have probably left almost every other ballpark in the country. It could have led to a win that would have set NC State up for a likely appearance in the best-of-three final for the national championship.
Last year, Trea Turner’s steal of home against North Carolina in the ACC Baseball Championship resulted in a blown call, denying the Wolfpack a chance to fight further for a postseason berth.
However, no amount of heartbreak could ever prepare the seniors or the team for what happened against TCU. Each player professed his love for the school and the team. It was muted, not due to them being curt with those who asked questions but simply because they were struggling to cope.
When it came to the success of NC State baseball, Ratledge and the rest of the team gave blood and sweat to the cause. On Monday, they gave tears.
Now comes the next act for the team, the fans and the outgoing seniors.
The remaining members of the team have an obligation to honor those senior leaders--and the juniors who would have been in the class but moved on to professional baseball--by laying it on the line with a pride in their school that is unmatched. At this point, there is no indication they will do it any other way.
The fans need to itemize the entire college career of each of the outgoing seniors and not let the final three innings form or encapsulate any memories they might have. The last four years of baseball have been fantastic overall for those who support the Wolfpack.
Last but not least, the NC State seniors--four of which sat solemnly in Ft. Worth Monday night. The hope is that each of them get to play in a baseball game soon--whether it is as a professional player in the Minor Leagues, semi-pro or just simply pick-up at a park somewhere.
As they play the game they love, it will be wonderful for them to hit a big homer, strike out the opposing batter, make a diving play defensively or just simply run the bases. Those fleeting moments on the diamond where years of hard work manifest itself into only seconds of joy but the investment of time was well worth it.
The NC State senior class deserves all the accolades it will receive and the gratitude from Wolfpack Nation that is certain to come, but what those players deserve most of all is the feeling of happiness playing the game they love.
Their day will come on the baseball field, wherever it may be, and they will still be Wolfpackers when it does.