WINSTON-SALEM, NC – On an unseasonably warm October afternoon, the stands at David F. Couch Ballpark were empty. Country music played through the soundsystem, but a periodic advertisement would provide interruption. When the 2023-24 Wake Forest baseball made its way down the tunnel from the locker room though, it was all song. Player by player, one by one, passed the same message on their final stride to the field for practice — “First Step to Omaha.”
In reality, and for the first time since 1955, the sign could’ve more accurately read “First Step Back to Omaha.” Wake Forest hadn’t made the College World Series in nearly 70 years, but the 2023 Demon Deacons did triumphantly, setting a program record for wins with 54, while charging through the regional and super regional rounds as the No. 1 overall seed in the nation.
The Deacs went toe-to-toe with Stanford and LSU, taking each down in brilliant bottom-of-the-eighth comebacks. But the Tigers later bit back, defeating Wake Forest on back-to-back evenings — the second on an extra-inning walk-off home run — to send the team back to Winston-Salem with regrets instead of the final triumph. LSU would be the one to raise the trophy a few short days later.
“[That loss is] something that I still think about all day, every day,” head coach Tom Walter said. “[I] think [of] what I could have done differently to help us win that game. We had it right where we wanted it. They got the big hit. We didn’t.”
For all the sadness that comes with being oh so close, the memory of that season — that trip to the middle of Nebraska — lives on.
“So many times, you build things up in your mind and they fail to meet expectations,” Walter said. “This one exceeded expectations.”
“It was definitely the best experience of my life,” starting pitcher Josh Hartle added. “Being able to play in front of thousands of people and represent this great university was second to none.”
With a new season, though, comes turnover. Ten Wake Forest players were selected in the MLB Draft less than a month after the Deacons’ historic season came to a close, more than any other college team in the country, including LSU. Paramount of those lost — two-time ACC Pitcher of the Year Rhett Lowder and ACC home-run record holder Brock Wilken, both of whom were picked in the first round by the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers respectively.
“We knew that was going to happen,” Walter said. “Anytime you have a great team, you are going to have pieces to fill. You don’t get to have a great team unless you have some veteran guys who are draft eligible and who have been successful. It’s the nature of the sport.”
But, just because nearly the entirety of Wake Forest’s starting lineup is gone doesn’t mean it’s going to take a long time for the Deacs to return to Omaha. From the very last out of his team’s journey in the College World Series to now, Walter has maintained that this isn’t a rebuild, it’s a reload.
“When you say rebuild, it lends you to believe that you’re building over time,” he said. “You might have a setback the next year while you get back to where you were. [Instead], we’re hoping this team can be just as good as last year.”
In order to reload, Wake Forest took to the transfer portal. Tate Ballestero (St. John’s) and Cameron Gill (Wofford) will vie to take over the catcher position vacated by Bennett Lee, who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers. Austin Hawke (North Carolina) is slated to start at second base, while Adam Tellier (Ball State) will likely fill in the big shoes of Wilken at third. Seaver King (Wingate University) was one of the highest-touted players in the entire portal, and will be one of Walter’s biggest weapons in 2024.
r̶e̶b̶u̶i̶l̶d̶— Wake Forest Baseball (@WakeBaseball) September 27, 2023
Replacing Lowder as one of the premier college pitchers in the nation would be nearly impossible, if not for the addition of Chase Burns from Tennessee, another team that made the trip to Omaha in 2023 but couldn’t crest the mountaintop. Burns’ transfer to Wake Forest comes with one goal — not losing in Omaha again.
“I know one of the big identities of this team is not just getting there, but winning at all,” he said.
The junior flamethrower, whose fastball peaked as high as 100 mph in a scrimmage with Elon Sunday, will pair with Hartle as the most-lethal one-two punch in all of college baseball, and that’s without mentioning another star arm in Michael Massey. Both Hartle and Burns are projected to be first-round picks this coming summer, with Burns battling Wake’s first baseman — Nick Kurtz — for the favorite at No. 1 overall.
Built For The Bigs ⚙️ pic.twitter.com/QXCjj6e655— Wake Forest Baseball (@WakeBaseball) September 22, 2023
Kurtz, who fought through a pulled oblique to even play in Omaha, is taking it upon himself to lead the team into its next era.
“Being a leader and having leaders on the team are very important,” he said. “Stepping into that role, I feel like [the departed players] prepared me for it, and I’m ready to do it.”
After losing elite closing pitcher Cam Minacci to the Los Angeles Angels, Wake Forest found its newest high-leverage arm in David Falco Jr, who guided a Maryland bullpen to the NCAA Tournament last season, where they fell partly at the hands of the Deacons in the Winston-Salem Regional.
To bolster Wake Forest’s returners, led by Kurtz, Marek Houston, Chris Katz and Jake Reinisch, Walter also recruited pitchers Haiden Leffew (No. 154 ranking per Perfect Game), Blake Morningstar (No. 162), Andrew Koshy (No. 346) and Josh Gunther. Cameron Nelson (No. 245), Jeter Polledo (No. 440), Javar Williams and Antonio Morales will each compete for playing time in the field.
“Javar Williams, Cam Nelson, Antonio Morales, those guys are pushing to change [the starting nine] so we feel really good about being 13-14 guys deep,” Walter said.
Walter noted that Leffew could slot in as the Deacons’ mid-week starting pitcher.
There’s a long way until the 2024 season starts, though. Even further away is the 2024 College World Series. As proven by the 70 years between trips for Wake Forest, that journey to Omaha is long and perilous. Many steps must be taken, but the first onto the field each day, with a look at the sign above, comes with hunger.
“I’m starving,” Hartle said. “Absolutely starving. No doubt in my mind we’ll be back there competing for a national championship.”