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For Wake Forest, belief, joy and love just mean more

In a game full of calculations, the intangibles run deep in the minds and hearts of the Deacons

Photo courtesy of Wake Forest Baseball

OMAHA, NE – When a team like Wake Forest wins the way it has, to the tune of a program-record 54 now, how it has done so can sometimes get lost in the background. By and large, the Deacons have completely outclassed their competition.

Wake Forest outscored its ACC opponents 213-120 in the 2023 season. Prior to the College World Series, the Deacs powered through the NCAA Tournament 75-16. Just 15 of the team’s 62 pre-Omaha games were decided by two runs or less.

That’s utter domination, and you get used to it.

Wake Forest’s journey thus far in the College World Series has been played to a very different tune. In their victories over No. 8 Stanford and No. 5 LSU, the Deacs led for just a half-inning each, having found the game-winning runs in the bottom of the eighth.

Those contests have been anything but domination. In fact, it felt like Wake Forest was on the back foot nearly the entire time.

One wonders how a team that is so used to decimating the opposition with ease is able to handle the pressure of games like the past two. The answer: complete and absolute confidence, belief in the team and joy for the game.

“The thing I love about this team is there’s no panic,” head coach Tom Walter said after a win over Florida State in May. “They know eventually that they’re going to punch runs across. Sometimes they run out of time and we lose, but we never feel like we get beat. We only run out of time.”

Against Stanford on Saturday, Wake Forest had just five hits before the game-winner by Danny Corona. Two days later, the team only recorded three prior to Bennett Lee’s single. Yet, the team didn’t falter. Instead, the answer — “good.”

Up and down the dugout, even when the game isn’t going well, the Deacs are a non-stop party. Strikeout, good. Fly out, good. Give up a run, good. Doesn’t matter.

Despite trailing 2-0 Monday against LSU, several Deacons danced in the dugout around Josh Hartle, celebrating another quality start for the sophomore. They could’ve been losing by more or winning by 15. They didn’t care, they were still going to cheer their teammate on.

“We started [playing] this game because we love it and we’ve built incredible relationships with people,” Lee said after the LSU victory. “The moment you lose sight of that is when, really, you’ve lost sight of the game and what it’s really about. We try to have a lot of fun…it allows your abilities to take over.”

In addition, Wake Forest believes unlike any other team.

“We have a bunch of unwavering faith,” Hartle said. “Doesn’t matter if we’re down 10-0 or up 10-0. We’re never out of a game. The camaraderie [and] chemistry with us is unbreakable.”

When Cam Minacci came out of the bullpen to close the game against Stanford, he knew one thing with intense confidence.

“This game is over.”

This team believes so much that they envision the plays. They see them in their minds and manifest them on the field.

In the ninth inning against the Cardinal, freshman Marek Houston bobbled a grounder to put a runner on first base with one out. For another team, that could have spelled trouble. But Wake Forest truly knew the end result.

“I said, ‘let’s get a double play right here,’” Minacci recalled. “We talked about it. I said, ‘JJ, let’s go get a double play.’”

“We visualize it,” second baseman Justin Johnson added. “It’s going through your head before the play — you’re going to get a double-play ball. You create your own reality. So we created the double play there.”

Lastly, the intense love this team shares for one another runs deep amongst the players, but it goes further than that.

Before Lee’s game-winner against LSU, he took a mid-count pause to call upon the wisdom of third-base coach Bill Cilento. Lee trusted he would provide the right guidance.

“My boots were shaking a little bit,” Lee said. “So I was like, ‘I’m going to go talk to Billy.’ Got a good hug. He’s like a father figure to all of us. I went over for some comfort.”

Cilento’s response, according to Lee, “I love you.”

“It just calmed me down, put me in a good head space for one pitch.”

His very next swing won the game.

In baseball, so much of the game is calculable — batting average, ERA, on-base percentage, K/9 and endless more. But, the intangibles — these things written above — just might mean more to a team like Wake Forest. They believe in the team no matter what, but even more so, they love each other.

Now, they’re one win from the College World Series final.

Minacci summed it up perfectly Monday night: “How can we lose? Every single guy is having the time of their lives right now. Like, who can beat us? It seems pretty much impossible.”

Coverage of Wake Forest baseball and the College World Series continues in Omaha. Stay tuned to Blogger So Dear for news, game stories and features.