The easy narrative is that NC State is headed back home to Raleigh instead of preparing for another game in Omaha because Elliott Avent decided to pitch to the most dangerous hitter in college baseball with a base open in the top of the 2nd.

And to a certain extent, that’s accurate.

Avent did have Dominic Fritton pitch to Florida’s Jac Caglianone with runners on 1st and 2nd with 2 outs instead of intentionally walking him as he did twice later in the game. And yes, Caglianone launched a 404-foot rocket over the right field wall to give the Gators a lead they would never relinquish in Monday’s elimination game at the College World Series. It was Caglianone’s 34th home run of the year — breaking the Gators single-season record of 33 he set last season.

But it would be a mistake to boil Florida’s 5-4 victory down to that one admittedly pivotal moment in an amazingly dramatic, well-played afternoon of baseball.

Let’s start with the decision.

Yes, third base was open, meaning the Wolfpack could have walked Caglianone to load them. But it was only the second inning. And Fritton had already struck out Caglianone once, getting him to wave at high fastballs in the first inning.

As Avent explained during an in-game interview with ESPN, the plan was to try and get Caglianone to expand the strike zone again. If he didn’t bite, the result would essentially have been an unintentional intentional walk.

At least that was the plan.

Fritton, who struggled with his command during his abbreviated outing, simply didn’t execute it. He missed his target by a mile and Caglianone hit it a mile. To the tune of 117 MPH exit velo, through the wind and into the seats in right-center.

It was a dramatic momentum shift. One that helped Florida turn an early 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 lead.

Still, it was hardly an insurmountable mountain to climb — especially considering Florida had to turn immediately to its bullpen the rest of the way.

The Wolfpack answered right back with a 2-run Alec Makarewicz homer to get within a run in the 3rd and had numerous opportunities to tie or go ahead the rest of the way. They put runners in scoring position in both the 7th and 8th innings.

If this had been Hollywood, someone would have come through with a big hit in a big spot – probably in slow motion – and State would have battled back to win the game. The Wolfpack would then have blazed their way through the loser’s bracket and triumphantly raised the championship trophy they were unjustly denied a shot at by an administrative decision 4 years ago.

It would have been the redemption story to end all redemption stories. Especially if Sam Highfill was on the mound for the final out.

But this isn’t Hollywood, it’s Omaha. It’s not the movies, it’s baseball.

And the perfect ending doesn’t always turn out to be perfect.

At least, perfectly happy.

Despite the 20 runners left on base in 2 frustrating 1-run losses filled with an inordinate number of coulda, woulda and shouldas, there was still plenty of redemption to go around for the Wolfpack.

For Highfill, 1 of 5 remaining players that were on the roster in 2021 when State was sent home just 1 win from the national championship series because of a COVID issue, just getting back to Omaha was a victory.

“I’m just grateful for the last 5 years,” the graduate right-hander said Monday. “Your career could end anywhere. But for it to be here, it’s special.”

Highfill was already a Wolfpack CWS legend after outdueling Vanderbilt ace Jack Leiter in a 1-0 victory as a freshman before picking up 3 hits as an emergency first baseman in the infamous “Wolfpack 13” game that preceded State’s controversial dismissal.

Saturday, he bookended his career with 7 gritting innings that gave his team a chance to win its opening game against Kentucky.

His effort inspired an equally heroic performance by another veteran pitcher.

“Watching him compete in Omaha was the one thing, when they got snubbed, it was one thing I wanted to come back and do for him,” redshirt senior Logan Whitaker said. “I think what we leave behind is that no matter what you face, there’s always a chance. And all you want is a chance.”

Whitaker missed the previous CWS trip because of an injury. But he took advantage of his own long-awaited chance when it finally came on Monday.

Coming out of the bullpen after Caglianone’s homer, he tied a tournament record for a relief pitcher by striking out a career-high 10 Gators over 7 dominant innings.

But even that wasn’t enough to produce the Hollywood ending the Wolfpack and their fans had hoped for and anticipated. With their 2nd loss in as many games in the double-elimination tournament, Avent and his players are once again heading home from Omaha early.

Without a championship trophy to show for their effort.

Just as they did in 2021.

Only this time they can at least take pride in the fact that their fate was decided on the field, not by an administrative decision in the middle of the night.