WINSTON SALEM, NC — For the first time since 2017, Wake Forest is back in the NCAA Super Regional. And, never before has the program hosted this portion of the tournament.
With that, comes a home-field advantage. The fans, who were raucous and played a big role in Wake Forest’s success last weekend, are expected to do so again this weekend.
“We’ll have an electric environment,” head coach Tom Walter said. “Deacon Nation has shown up in droves. It’s exciting.”
“Deacon Nation showed out the past couple of weekends,” Brock Wilken added. “They’ve been here through everything. When we started at [10:45 on Saturday], we almost got 3000 people at the game. That doesn’t [just] happen. [The night before], Walt walks to the mound to get Keener out and he walks right back and you hear the place just erupt. I mean, I got goosebumps.”
“At that moment, we looked at one another on the mound and were like, ‘we’re not losing.’”
With an event like a super regional comes a big name in Alabama. The Crimson Tide are a “dangerous club.”
“They’ve got a lot of momentum,” Walter said. “They’re playing really well. They’re battle tested. You don’t get to the final 16 of this [tournament] without having a really good club.”
“We can’t take any team lightly,” Rhett Lowder noted. “They earned it. They earned their whole way here.”
But, Wake Forest has momentum, too. After outscoring their opponents 48-7 in the regional, the desperation to hit the field is rather evident.
“They’re excited, they’ve been waiting for this,” Walter said. “We’ve been building towards this [moment] all year. It’s hard to come into a season with the expectations that our guys have for this program, and then deliver so consistently on those expectations and be the best version of ourselves. But our guys have done that.”
“It’s been a long week, but we’re finally here,” he added. “Alabama is here. We’re close.”
With that excitement comes the gravity of the moment. There’s pressure.
“If we lose this series, we’re going to feel like this year was a disappointment,” Walter said. “I’m proud of that, but at the same time, it adds pressure and our guys feel that.”
When that stress comes, though, the Deacs won’t have to go back far to recall when it all floated away. The rain took care of that with a five-hour delay on Saturday night. In the first inning, Wake Forest hit Maryland with a knockout and never looked back.
That experience is an inspiration for the approach the team can take into the super regional.
“It was an out of body experience,” Wilken said. “It didn’t feel real. I felt like we were back in 16-U travel ball playing games at Lakepoint. Looking back on it, the way the crowd was — their energy, our energy — you could tell that as soon as you scored first, that game was over. That’s what we got to come out with this weekend.”
On the mound, Wake Forest will go with Rhett Lowder on Saturday and Josh Hartle Sunday, per Walter. The rest, including bullpen usage, is to be determined.
“Seth Keener and Sean Sullivan will both be available out of the ‘pen tomorrow,” he said. “I could see a scenario where one of them would throw one inning tomorrow and potentially start on Monday. It really just depends on how much length we get out of Lowder or what the score is. If we get seven-plus out of Lowder, we probably go right to Massey and Minacci. We get less than that, we probably go to Sullivan.”
On the other side of the field, Wake Forest’s top hitters — Wilken and Nick Kurtz — combined for 10-24, eight RBI and 11 walks, but no home runs in the Winston-Salem Regional. In order to dominate the competition the way they did, the Demon Deacons leaned on the production of names like Justin Johnson, Adam Cecere, Pierce Bennett, Tommy Hawke, Danny Corona and more.
“I think it’s the first weekend all year where neither of us had homers,” Wilken said. “And our run differential was 41. That’s unbelievable. [It] just shows how good the guys behind us [are] and how much they mean to our lineup.”
Having that type of output across the lineup is important, but so are the big hitters being a threat.
“If we’re going to win this weekend, we’re gonna need our stars,” Walter said. “It takes star-power to win in the postseason. You also need that kind of guy that gets hot down the stretch and can put the team on his back. JJ [Justin Johnson] and Pierce Bennett have done that. Tommy Hawke is certainly a candidate to do something like that. When you’re talking about low-scoring games, it doesn’t take a whole lot to impact the series.”
Now, hours away from game one, there’s just one thing left to do — play. And before that happens, Walter made sure to light the spark anew for his team.
In a team meeting, he showed the Deacs a video of Larry Bird infamously stealing the ball in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons.
“I asked them, ‘why do you think I showed this video,’ and they knew why. [Bird] tried to take the game-winning shot two seconds earlier and got knocked to the ground. There could have been a foul, and if he had been complaining to the officials or been pouting or hung his head, he’s not in position to make that steal, throw it to [Dennis Johnson] and have the game winner.”
“If we’re willing to take our pride and our ego, put it aside, and stay on what’s best for the team, then we’re gonna have a really good chance.”
First pitch of the Winston-Salem Super Regional is set for 12pm Saturday on ESPN.