WINSTON SALEM, NC – Early Monday, Wake Forest baseball learned it will be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the teams it will face — Maryland, Northeastern and George Mason.
“It’s a strong regional,” head coach Tom Walter said. “You got the Big 10 champion [in Maryland]. Northeastern played a great schedule and has some really good wins. And George Mason is red hot right now. They played really well this past weekend. Three tough teams in this regional and we’re looking forward to getting started on Friday.”
Shortly after, it was time to practice. Nothing changes.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure,” Josh Hartle said. “We’re just gonna have the same mindset going out. We’re just gonna try and have the most fun out of any team in the country and do what we do.”
Being named the No. 1 overall seed didn’t come with much surprise or fanfare. Wake Forest has been ranked as the top team in the nation for three weeks.
“It’s been pretty special,” Nick Kurtz noted. “We’ve had a great regular season, but [a] new season starts on Friday. All that number one, all that stuff doesn’t really matter as much anymore…We [have] something else to prove, and the job’s not finished.”
What was an intriguing development when the Winston-Salem Regional was announced was one of the teams in it — Maryland. Last year, it was the Terps that ended Wake Forest’s season in College Park. It’s an opportunity for revenge.
“I think it’s on everyone’s mind,” Walter said.
“Personally, I was a little excited to see them in our regional,” Brock Wilken added. “[Losing] left a sour taste in our mouth from last year. We’re gonna go out there and play the game, and whatever happens happens. But, we’re gonna go out there with a little extra oomph.”
But to get out of the regional and advance further in the tournament, Wake Forest is going to have to hold true to the qualities it’s been good at all year.
“You need pitching and defense, which I think we do really well,” Walter said. “And [we need] timely hitting. At the ACC Tournament, we didn’t get as many clutch hits as we needed. We had…opportunities and just didn’t convert. We’re gonna have chances and we need to cash in.”
“Now it’s real,” Rhett Lowder added. “Every game matters a lot.”
One kick Wake Forest will have over the other teams coming to Winston-Salem to get them over the hump — a home fan base. According to Walter, roughly 300 general admission tickets are left, and all reserved seats are sold out.
“We’ve had an electric crowd down the stretch,” he said. “I think, on Friday night, we’re going to see it even more. I can’t wait.”
All that’s left is to play the actual games. For Wake Forest, the time to win is now more than ever. Anything less will be seen as a disappointment.
“If you ask anybody in our locker room, coaches or players, if this season ends in the regional, it’s going to be a disappointing season,” Walter said. “For us to consider this season a success, the train only has one stop.”
And to say the unsaid, that stop is Omaha, NE, home of the College World Series. And the Deacs are desperate to make it back for the first time since 1955. For Wilken, it means everything.
“I would literally give anything,” he said. “I would give so much to just be able to experience it one time, especially with this guy [Kurtz] and the other 25 guys next to me. I don’t think there will be a greater feeling besides maybe my kids being born one day or marriage. I think those three are going to be pretty special.”
Wake Forest will begin the journey to get there Friday night at 7pm vs George Mason. Per Walter, Seth Keener will start on the mound, with Rhett Lowder and Josh Hartle slated for Saturday and Sunday, respectively.