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Wake Forest baseball returns, “Make Them Feel You” remains

The Deacons, fresh off their first College World Series since 1955, are keeping last season’s motto

Photo courtesy: Wake Forest Baseball

During last season’s storied run to a 54-12 record, No. 1 ranking and first College World Series appearance in Omaha since 1955, Wake Forest’s motto was “Make Them Feel You.”

Entering 2024, much has changed for the Deacs, but that message will stay the same.

“We were thinking about this earlier in the fall, about what we wanted Team 110 to be, what we want this team to be like,” first baseman Nick Kurtz said. “We’re going over different scenarios and different sayings to do, and we’re like, ‘why should we change something that works so well for us?’

“We’re still trying to make them feel us every day. So what’s the point of changing that when you still want to do that every day?”

Some of the team’s motto holding over to a new year may have something to do with unfinished business left behind in Omaha.

“We obviously [came up] a little shorter than we wanted to last year,” Kurtz said. “But at the same time, we made them feel us the whole way through, as far as we went. And we’re proud to be able to do that. This year, we want to do that again and have a different finish.”

Similar to looking for a different finish, Wake Forest is starting the season in a new place — No. 1. Nearly every publication that ranks college baseball has the Deacs at the top of the nation.

“It’s really cool,” starting pitcher Josh Hartle said. “If you would have told me that three years ago when I first stepped on campus, I don’t know if I would have believed you. It’s an honor, for sure. Something that you dream about and you want to embrace that.”

“Being No. 1, every team you face coming in here, they’ll be looking to beat you,” Kurtz added. You’re going to have a target on your back from the beginning. We like that. We embrace that role that we’re going to have throughout the season. We won’t really want to have it any other way. Going from one and hopefully staying one the whole year and finishing one, that’s the goal.”

Last year, Wake Forest’s captains were really never set in stone. There were leaders, sure, but the captains weren’t named by head coach Tom Walter until the team was nearing the postseason. With Team 110, things are different. Kurtz and Hartle were awarded the roles at the beginning of fall practices.

“It’s been awesome with those two guys…” Walter said. “We named them the first day in the fall, because Nick and Josh were just the obvious picks…They know who they are, they’re comfortable in their own skin and they know what this team needs. They’ve really taken that role and run with it.”

Kurtz and Hartle are two of the longest-tenured players on a team that lost a large portion of its experience. Rhett Lowder, Brock Wilken, Seth Keener, Sean Sullivan, Justin Johnson, Tommy Hawke, Bennett Lee and Pierce Bennett are gone, to name a few. Many other key players departed for the draft or through the transfer portal.

That means a lot of new faces for Wake Forest, but doesn’t change the high level of talent. Walter noted that position player maturity, a strong batting lineup and a top-tier pitching staff make for another dangerous team.

“I’m really happy with the roster we assembled,” he said. “I like our freshman class. It’s a super talented freshman class.

“We’re really happy with the portal guys. We obviously added star power in [pitcher] Chase Burns and [IF/OF] Seaver King. Then you add the depth pieces and role players like [catcher] Tate Ballestero and [third baseman] Adam Tellier and [catcher] Cameron Gill and [second baseman] Austin Hawke.”

With those new faces, Kurtz and Hartle will have to take on larger leadership roles to go with the captaincy.

“I’ve been more of a quiet leader, led by example,” Kurtz said. “But following those leaders leaving last year, I knew I had to step into a little bit of a different role and speak my mind a little bit more and be that vocal guy that the team needs.”

That means being the front man on a defense that returns just two starters — himself and sophomore Marek Houston.

“I had this conversation with Marek, he’s gonna have to step into a new role, being a shortstop, being a little bit older,” Kurtz said. “He’s got to lead the infield, he’s got to be that guy to do that.”

While there’s a change in player leadership, the guidance from the top remains unchanged. Of course, Walter is still the head coach. Pitching coach Corey Muscara is back, as is batting coach Bill Cilento. Rejoining the team as a full-time staff member is Director of Analytics Chris Lewis, who spent his summer working with the Toronto Blue Jays.

“We had some of our alums and donors really step up to make that happen,” Walter noted. “So we could keep Coach Moose [Muscara] and Billy [Cilento] here and Wess [Matt Wessinger] and add Chris Lewis, the analytics position.”

“Chris Lewis is the man,” Hartle said. “He’s somebody I look up to and you’re gonna have his mind and all his ideas back. He’s a game changer. He impacts every pitcher that comes through here. He’s a big reason for my own success.”

Friday afternoon, Wake Forest took the field for its first official practice of the spring. In exactly three weeks, it will do so for the first game of the season — Feb. 16 against Fordham. The focus until then — that game, not the past.

“That’s our goal this year, is to go to Omaha and [win it all],” Kurtz said. “But at the same time, we gotta beat Fordham on February 16. So kind of knowing that in the back of our heads, that’s our goal — to win the national championship — we still have a long way to get there. Focusing one game at a time, one pitch, is the way to do that.”

Pinch Hits: potential closing pitcher Cole Roland will be out with a forearm stress reaction until around mid-April per Tom Walter…Georgia Tech weekend starting pitcher Luke Schmolke transferred to Wake Forest in January, but will not be available until next season due to late enrollment…Josh Hartle is at about 80-90% throwing power and should be ready for 85 pitches on opening day…Pitching lab coordinator Mike McFerran has left the team for another opportunity, replaced by Sean Fisher…NIL/donations played a role in Wake Forest being able to keep this team together and bring in some big pieces, per Walter…the team has sold 1900 season tickets