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Highfill, A-Mak Heroics Not Enough As Wolfpack Fall to Wildcats

OMAHA, NE- After three years, North Carolina State returned to Omaha for the first time since their infamous disqualification due to a Covid-19 outbreak within their locker room in 2021. For much of the game, the Wolfpack were unable to capitalize with runners on base before rallying late to lead #2 Kentucky on Saturday afternoon heading into the 9th inning. The Wildcats swatted a solo home run in the 9th to tie the game and then a solo shot in the 10th to complete the walk-off come back.

Sam Highfill, whose heroics in NC State’s last trip to the College World Series are well documented, was able to grind out a quality start against a pesky Kentucky lineup. After a rocky first inning that was limited to just one run, the Apex, NC native gave up a single and a two run blast to see his team go down 3-1. Highfill credits catcher Jacob Cozart with helping him adjust in the middle of the game.

"I knew after the first few innings that I didn't have as great command as I would like to have," Highfill said in the post-game press conference. "He worked with me. I was able to start throwing more strikes and that was able to carry me through seven."

Last time Highfill had played here in Omaha, he'd been forced to play first base in the infamous Pack-13 game. He went 3-4 on the day against Vanderbilt. Just four days earlier, he'd pitched 7.1 shutout innings as the Wolfpack surged towards a spot in the NCAA Championship Series. Unfortunately, that chance never came to fruition in 2021.

After 116 pitches, the Mayor's final line was:

7 IP - 6 H - 3 ER - 2 BB - 7 K

While veteran Highfill delivered on the mound, veteran middle-of-the-order bats Garrett Pennington, Alec Makarewicz, and Jacob Cozart delivered at the plate. The trio combined for seven of the Wolfpack’s ten hits and all three RBIs. Cozart drove in Pennington with one out in the 3rd inning to tie the game at 1-1 while A-Mak delivered a 414 foot home run to right field in the 7th to tie again at 3-3. 

Despite the success of those three hitters, the Wolfpack offense struggled to collect clutch hits with men on base. Through their first eight innings, NC State went 1-8 with runners in scoring position and managed just one extra base hit– Makarewicz’s home run. 

Still, NC State found themselves leading heading into the bottom of the 9th after scoring on a wild pitch in the top half. Freshman reliever Jacob Dudan, who has been brilliant all season, took to the mound to try and close it out.

"I thought with the way Dudan had been throwing we were in good shape," Avent said. "Especially with on a day where the ball wasn't carrying very well."

Dudan left an 0-1 slider over the plate to lead off the 9th and Kentucky first baseman Ryan Nicholson did not miss as he slammed the ball down the left field line for a home run to tie the game 4-4. After giving up a single to the next batter, closer Derrick Smith came to the mound and was able to get the game to extra innings. NC State never threatened again as they went 1-2-3 in the Top of the 10th.

With the Wolfpack just one out from sending the game to the 11th, Kentucky third baseman Mitchell Daly hit a 1-2 pitch into the Wildcat bullpen to walk off the Wolfpack, 5-4.

"Tough day to hit here for power," said Avent. "But [Nicholson] hit that one to left, and then [Daly] got that last one."

NC State will now have to reset and refocus as they prepare to play in the Loser's bracket against either Florida or Texas A&M. Both Highfill and Makarewicz stressed the need to be ready.

"I think a day off and practice tomorrow will help clear the minds and refocus," said Highfill. "We've got to be ready for Monday."

"I trust all of our guys," Makarewicz added. "It comes down to every pitch, every pitch matters."

Despite the loss, Elliott Avent seemed upbeat about his teams performance and complimented their play several times during the post-game press conference. The long-time NC State coach stressed how small the margin of error is at the level of the competition and reiterated the need for his team to reset and refocus.

NC State will play again at 1pm Central Time on Monday in an elimination game.

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