For six decades, Wake Forest was the answer to one of college baseball’s better trivia questions: When was the last time an ACC team won the national title?
Until 2015, when Virginia claimed the national championship, Wake Forest, 1955, was the answer.
This year’s Demon Deacons are trying to create history of their own. Behind a bruising and bashing lineup that has belted 100 homers – the most in college baseball since the BBCOR bat restrictions were implemented in 2011 – Wake Forest is in the Super Regionals for the first time since 1999.
“Obviously just an incredible sense of pride,” Demon Deacons coach Tom Walter said the morning after his squad eliminated West Virginia 12-8 to win the Winston-Salem Regional.
The slugfest was reminiscent of the last time the Deacs won a Regional. Back in 1999, Wake won its three games by scores of 22-4, 12-1 and 13-3 (it also lost a 9-3 game to Richmond that forced a winner-take-all game, the 13-3 win).
That was in the midst of the heyday of Wake Baseball. Under George Greer, the Demon Deacons won three ACC titles in four years (1998, 1999 and 2001) and played in the NCAA Tournament five straight years (1998-2002). Greer stepped down after two subpar years – the Demon Deacons won a combined 46 games in 2003 and 2004 after winning 47 in 2002 alone – and moved into the athletic department after 17 years leading the baseball program.
His replacement, Rick Rembielak, had a pair of 30-win seasons but was not retained after his fifth year.
Enter Walter, a coach who had built his resume on resurrecting programs.
At George Washington, Walter averaged 38 wins a year in eight years after inheriting a program that averaged about 22 wins a year the previous five years. He took over the New Orleans program, which was averaging about 27 wins a year the previous four years, in 2005 and guided it to back-to-back Regional appearances starting in his third year. Not surprisingly, his Privateers teams that reached Regionals did it with their bats.
Walter arrived at Wake Forest in 2009. It took until last year, his seventh at Wake, to return to Regionals before taking another step up by earning the opportunity to host a Regional this year.
“Do I wish it happened two years earlier? Of course,” Walter said. “I think we’re right on schedule.”
At Wake Forest, Walter took over a program that was behind its ACC brothers in terms of facilities.
It was moving into a former Minor League ballpark – Ernie Shore Field – and the school quickly made improvements to what is now known as Gene Hooks Field at Wake Forest Baseball Park. In 2015, it announced a $14 million player development center.
But Walter also needed something else.
“It always starts with players,” he said, adding that he and his assistants were on the hunt for serious baseball players.
That was a bit of a challenge. To recruit the best, especially in a conference like the ACC, winning and facilities are crucial.
“They want to come play for a winner,” Walter said.
Walter had won before, and even though it was taking longer at Wake Forest, he had won over his players and many fans around the world when he donated a kidney to one of his players, Kevin Jordan, in 2011 (CollegeBaseballInsider.com honored Walter and named its annual College Baseball Inspiration award after him).
His team again is winning. The Deacs will travel to Florida to meet the Gators in the Super Regionals, the same state they traveled to when they lost two games to Miami in the 1999 Supers.
They’ll be trying to become the answer to their own trivia question.