There’re no two ways about it.
The fate that’s befallen the N.C. State baseball team and 2017 Collegiate School graduate Evan Justice is a bummer of the highest order.
Over the past two days, the Wolfpack have gone from gritty, crowd-favorite underdog to another victim of Covid at the absolute worst possible moment to out of the College World Series just a few hours before they were to play Vanderbilt for the chance to advance to the best-of-three round that would determine the 2021 national champion.
To recap, the Pack opened their season 4-9 overall and 1-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, then found their rhythm and reached the ACC tournament championship game where they lost 1-0 to Duke.
They won the NCAA regionals in Ruston, LA, and the super regionals in Fayetteville, AR, where they twice knocked off the nationally top-ranked Razorbacks before a vocal and highly-partisan crowd in their home stadium. As one of eight teams that advanced to the CWS, they dispatched Stanford 10-4, then defending national champ Vanderbilt 1-0.
Along the way, they remained afloat despite facing three of college baseball’s top pitchers and future high MLB draft picks (Arkansas’s Kevin Kopps, Stanford’s Brendan Beck, and Vandy’s Jack Leiter) while their own pitching staff (including Justice, a late-inning, lock-down reliever) held previously potent offenses in check.
They were on a roll. They were playing inspired baseball. They made clutch plays. They bent at times but refused to break. They became media darlings and gained the respect of their opponents and even their opponents’ fan bases.
They seemed a team of destiny. And then…
A short time before the Wolfpack were to face the Commodores Friday in the second of their three-game set, their coaching staff learned that numerous players (Justice included) were ineligible because of Covid protocols and that they would have only 13 players available.
The outcome, a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Vandy and highly-touted pitcher Kumar Rocker, was predictable if not a fait accompli because even with a patchwork lineup, the Pack summoned the resolve to make a game of it and, had a break come here or there, might have won.
Then, in the wee hours of Saturday, the NCAA announced that after consulting with local health officials, they would be unable to continue, Vanderbilt would advance to the finals, and their season (37-19) was over.
Now, they’re left to pick up the pieces of what-might-have-been.
It’s easy to say that life isn’t always fair. It’s easy to say that a person is judged not by the cheap shots and forearm shivers that life delivers but how he (or she) responds to them. It’s easy to say that when you fall, you bounce back up, smile, dust yourself off, and keep moving forward.
Putting that thinking into practice is another matter altogether.
As Justice and his teammates have found, sometimes we’re tested in ways we don’t desire, expect, or deserve, but we must accept the outcome, harsh as it might be, in real time and without remedy.
Justice prepared a lifetime to pitch in the College World Series, and his preparation – every step, every rep – paid off with memory-making, SportsCenter-worthy performances.
He’s also prepared his entire life to manage, if not hide completely, his emotions.
There’s much more to him, you see, than his well-conditioned 6-4, 205-pound frame, strong left arm, mid-90’s fastball, and nasty slider.
He’s possessed of poise, grace, humility, sportsmanship, resilience, and a Zen-like calm that belies a fierce competitive spirit that will no doubt allow him to move past the disappointment of today and consider his body of work nothing short of amazing.
“Heartbroken,” he posted on Twitter early Saturday afternoon. “Absolute nightmare way to end it. To say I’m proud of my teammates would be an understatement. I’ll love this team forever.”
In sports as in life, our most memorable experiences come often from the Mt. Everest highs, but the enduring lessons, those that teach us the most about ourselves and reveal our true character, come from the Mariana Trench lows.
For Justice and the Wolfpack, the gut-wrenching pain of the moment will pass, and the days ahead will no doubt bring perspective, healing, and, ultimately, peace.