WINSTON-SALEM, NC – In the biggest game of the season thus far, Wake Forest brought out the big sticks, mashing nine home runs to comprehensively take down Alabama 22-5 and punch its ticket to Omaha and the College World Series.
“That dogpile was was surreal,” Brock Wilken said. “Obviously, not a lot of people get to do that. Being able to do that with my best friends, that meant the world to me. After, just hugging every single one of my teammates and coaches saying ‘we did it,’— jobs not finished — but we got a huge step along the way.”
It’s been a long wait to go to the glory land in the midwest — the Deacs haven’t made it past the Super Regionals of the NCAA Tournament since 1955. At that point, buildings were still being constructed on the new Wake Forest campus in Winston-Salem.
“It’s super special to be able to be a part of something bigger than yourself,” Wilken said. “It’s always amazing to do it on the greatest college baseball stage. That means nothing more to myself, being able to do it with these guys right next to me. That’s what it’s all about right there.”
For Nick Kurtz, this moment was something he thought about when choosing to play ball at Wake Forest.
“When I decided to come here, this is what I envisioned,” he said. “This kind of year, these kinds of people around me. It’s pretty awesome to see everything come to fruition this year. All the hard work and all the love we have for one another, it all works together and it all makes sense.”
It started fast in the first inning. Kurtz ripped a two-run blast to right. Wilken followed with a solo-shot to left.
Both players, two of Wake Forest’s brightest stars, went 0-4 at the plate in Game 1 on Saturday. But, the Deacs had other guys carry them to a win then. That makes it easier to come back and shine the next day.
“I know, if I go 0-4, the next three guys are going to go 3-4,” Kurtz said. “That’s the kind of team we are. When I have a bad day, I know my team’s going to pick me up. It makes me able to not dwell on things and move on to the next day and try to win.”
“We talked about it yesterday,” Wilken added. “The two best hitters right now are 0-8 and we beat them. That shows you how good of a team we are, that collective group effort. We can beat you in so many different ways.”
Tommy Hawke added a two-RBI homer during Wake’s second trip to the plate. Wilken, Danny Corona and Bennett Lee pitched in with more in the third.
With an 18-5 score in the eighth, it all began to feel real for Kurtz.
“We looked around and were like, ‘We’re actually gonna do this. We’re about to do this.’ When that last out happened, it really all became surreal.”
But Wake Forest wasn’t done following the star sophomore’s realization. Freshman Marek Houston cracked a grand slam to book the Deacs’ ticket in the eighth.
“When he comes up big, it’s big,” Wilken said. “Especially for a young kid to do that, in this moment, against a really good team, that was a really special moment for him. And a really special moment for me, because he’s like one of my little brothers.”
Wilken followed with his third home run of the day an inning later, setting the ACC record for career HRs.
The first person to congratulate him when he entered the dugout — his coach.
“That’s when it kind of really hit,” Wilken said. “This is one of those moments … I’ll never forget anything.”
Corona tacked on the final deep-ball later in the ninth.
Alabama took four home runs off Wake Forest’s pitchers as well, but Josh Hartle settled down for six solid innings, notching 11 strikeouts. Cole Roland, Michael Massey and Cam Minacci did the rest with three outs each.
At the beginning of the 2023 season, expectations were high for Wake Forest. The team was ranked in the top 10. The pressure was legitimate. But, instead of cowering in the face of those standards and hopes, the Deacons soared.
“[I’m] so proud of this team,” head coach Tom Walter said. “We had high expectations all year. Number one ranked [team]. The higher the expectations got, the more these guys showed up.”
This is Walter’s 14th year at Wake Forest. Before that, he took George Washington and New Orleans to NCAA Tournaments. But this is his first-ever College World Series. And after all the struggles — going 10-22 in conference in 2021 — the close calls like the 2017 supers and everything in between, he’s finally going to Omaha.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” he said. “It’s made extra special because of the people we’re with. Our coaching staff is like this [hands tightly clasped]. Our group of players is like this. We’ve been like that from day one this year. So proud of this club and how we’ve continued to build momentum, build on our successes and learn from our failures. And here we are. It means everything.”
The history of his time at Wake Forest all came together for this pivotal moment.
“We’ve had David Couch here,” Walter said. “Gene Hooks being here today, it was really special to me, that he was here for that. [Former AD] Ron Wellman was here. Ben Sutton was here, Steve Forbes was here. It’s really special that, again, our folks showed up. We must have had 40 alums here, ranging in age … [some] that were here 20 years ago. It was a really special day.”
But, as Walter and his team have voiced all season, the job is not finished. A regional has been won, as has a super. Now, it’s time to go to Omaha and take the whole thing.
“It’s a big day for us,” Walter said. “We’re gonna celebrate this one for 36 hours, and then we’re gonna get back to work. This team, we’ve got even bigger goals.”