Rocky Mountain High

First, let’s dispense with unfinished business.
Three weeks ago, Evan Justice and his NC State baseball teammates fell victim to Covid protocols and were prematurely eliminated from the College World Series just one victory away from qualifying for the best-of-three series that would determine the NCAA champion.

“To state the obvious, it was very unfortunate,” said the 2017 Collegiate graduate. “To start off 2-0 (in the CWS), then play a game with 13 eligible players, then get disqualified was a nightmare. 

“It’ll take a lot of time to get over it and accept it, but looking at the positives, to be able to play in Omaha was a dream come true. As badly as we wanted to win it all, we picked up a ton of fans and created memories that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”

Now, on to new business.

Early this past Monday afternoon, the Colorado Rockies selected Justice, a 6-4, 205-pound left-handed pitcher with a mid-90’s fastball and nasty slider, in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball draft.

When his name and picture appeared on the television screen as the 140th overall pick, he was watching the live stream of the festivities on in his parents’ family room with his mom Michaelle, dad Brian, sister Meagan, and girlfriend Lauren Wareham.

A moment later, he received a congratulatory call from Jordan Czarniecki, the Rockies’ scouting supervisor for South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, welcoming him to the organization.

For much of that day, actually much of the previous two weeks as he processed the Wolfpack’s season, he’d conferred at length with representatives of 20 or so big league teams to discuss goals, interests, and viability within their organizations.

Now, he’s in the process of closing down shop in Raleigh. Then, he’ll return briefly to Richmond. Sunday he’ll fly to Phoenix and report to the Rockies’ training facility in nearby Scottsdale. Monday, he’ll take his physical and sign his first professional contract.

“This is a big step in my life,” he said. “There’s a mixture of excitement and anxiousness.  I’ll be in a new place with new people. I’ve certainly developed a level of comfort here at NC State. It’s very rewarding to see a lot of hard work pay off.”

That hard work plus mental discipline and innate ability have carried Justice through Tuckahoe Little League (where he actually played three years for the Rockies) and travel ball, high school, and college ball.

“First and foremost, Evan is a tremendous athlete,” said Andrew Slater, who’s headed Collegiate’s baseball program since 2009. “He’s always possessed great determination, coachability, and work ethic so I knew he would go to college and get better. 

“You see the transformation physically since high school. He’s received a high level of coaching and had access to (training) resources in college, but more importantly, he’s been on a mission since he got to NC State. Evan is so mature beyond his years. He’s incredibly dutiful, diligent and workmanlike in his approach to his academics and athletics. He’s grounded. He shows up on time. He’s a great teammate.”

As a high school junior year, Justice helped the Cougars finish 22-5 and win both the Prep League and VISAA championships. His senior year, he went 7-1 with 70 strikeouts and a 1.05 earned run average, batted .506 with five home runs and 40 runs batted in, and earned league, state, and All-Metro player-of-the-year honors.

This past spring at State, his ledger read 5-2 with a 3.77 ERA, 77 strikeouts, and 13 saves. In five NCAA tournament appearances, all in relief, he was 1-0 with four saves and a 2.08 ERA. He was also third team DI Baseball All-American, third team Perfect Game All-American, third team All-Atlantic Coast Conference, and All-ACC Academic Team.

In typical Evan Justice fashion, he takes quiet pride in his achievement but deflects the credit.

“I’m just happy to be in the position I’m in and excited for the future,” he said. “My family has been extremely supportive throughout my athletic career. The last few weeks, they’ve been amazing (as they traveled about the country to see him play).
“Coach Slater played a big role in helping me get to NC State. He was really the one that let me know that I had a chance to be a good baseball player. He always preached that if you want it, you can get it. 

“At NC State, my coaches worked with me and developed me and made me into a much better player than when I got to school. This (success) wouldn’t be possible without them and all my teammates.” 

Justice will remain in Scottsdale temporarily, learn the ropes, work out with the Rockies’ new signees, savor the experience, and await his assignment.

Slater, who’s coached in college programs (Auburn, VMI, and Western Kentucky) where players were drafted, feels that he’s well positioned to succeed.

“Absolutely,” Slater said. “I think he’ll have a ton of success. Evan has always been a quiet and fiercely tenacious competitor. Baseball is such a tough sport because you fail so often. Evan is so even keeled. He doesn’t get rattled. He just focuses on making the next pitch. That’s a great mindset to have as a baseball player and in life.”
  ~Weldon Bradshaw