Wake Forest looking to continue record-setting season in ACC, NCAA Tournaments

Equipped with stellar starting pitching and a powerful lineup, the Demon Deacons are poised for a long run in the postseason

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
Wake Forest outfielder Stuart Fairchild (4) sprints towards home to score a run against Duke during the first round of the ACC Baseball Championship at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Tuesday

Fifteen years. That’s how long it’s been since the Wake Forest baseball team has hosted an NCAA Regional. It’s also the last time the program has amassed more than 35 wins in a single season.Until this year, of course.After already accomplishing one of those goals with a 38-17 mark heading into the ACC Tournament, head coach Tom Walter hopes to seal up a Regional hosting spot in Louisville.”It’s been a great season so far, but the second season hasn’t even started,” Walter said. “We are in the discussion as a regional host; that’s what you strive for as a team. With just a few games left before getting to that point, it would be a huge step forward for our program to get that done.”On the heels of its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2009 last year, the 2017 team was mostly discounted in the ACC. After the loss of Will Craig, the 22nd overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, the Demon Deacons were not one of eight teams listed in several preseason polls.That hasn’t stopped the Demon Deacons from shocking the college baseball world behind a stellar rotation and one of the best offenses in the country. Heading into the ACC Tournament, the Deacs come in at No. 12 in the Baseball America standings released Monday after a series win over Pittsburgh. That marked the program-record 18th conference win of the season.Michael Lananna of Baseball America, one of Wake’s earliest proponents, believed the Deacs would make a regional for a second straight year. But even he didn’t see this season coming.”I’m sure some people who watched them casually last year probably thought, ‘OK, they’re going to lose Will Craig, so they’re done,'” Lananna said. “But from my perspective, having watched this team closely over the last several years, you could tell they were building toward something special.”I just don’t think anyone expected this.”On the mound, Walter’s club has one of the best 1-2 punches in the ACC. Parker Dunshee, who returned to Wake after being a 14th-round selection by the Cubs, has fit the bill as the team’s ace with an ACC-leading nine wins. Fellow senior Connor Johnstone is not far behind with a 7-0 mark and 3.46 ERA behind two complete games.Dunshee recently set a record for career strikeouts at 313 for his career heading into the ACC Tournament. While the potential for injury or decline was there when Dunshee returned, Walter believes he has been one of the biggest reasons for the program’s complete turnaround.”It’s made all the difference for this club,” Walter said. “He should be 13-1 at this point, but had some tough luck against teams like Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson where he pitched well enough to win and we couldn’t finish for him. … I don’t know that anybody else in the country can say that. We don’t get to this point without him on the mound for us every weekend.”What Wake has done on the mound is remarkable, but what it has accomplished at the plate is historic for the Deacs. Stuart Fairchild, Johnny Aiello and Gavin Sheets have played in all 55 games this season with a combined 49 home runs and 183 RBI.Sheets and Aiello rank seventh and eighth overall in the country, respectively, with 19 and 18 homers. Fairchild’s 13 dingers rank third on the team, helping the Deacs reach a program-record 93 longballs, surpassing the previous mark of 90 set in 1999.Five of the Deacs’ regular starting nine have 12 homers or more, with sophomore Bruce Steel (12) and junior Keegan Maronpot (12) also on that list. Along with Fairchild, Aiello and Sheets, Wake also has three more players in Jake Mueller, Jonathan Pryor and Ben Breazeale who are batting .320 or higher with at least a .412 on-base percentage.”Stuart Fairchild and Gavin Sheets were the known commodities coming into the season with their power,” Lananna said. “But the guy who jumps out is Johnny Aiello, who stopped switch hitting and made a massive leap. Then you throw in Pryor and Breazeale and you have a deep lineup that’s ready for a deep postseason run.”Given the ridiculous wealth of talent, it’s no wonder the Deacs head into the ACC Tournament as the No. 3 seed. Wake earned that seed over traditional baseball powers like Virginia and Clemson, but will have to topple No. 6 Miami and No. 10 Georgia Tech — who have a combined three ACC Tournament titles in the last decade — to advance out of its own pool.The ultimate goal is to win the ACC Championship, but earning hosting duties for the first time since 2002 would prove where the program is at overall. However, Walter hopes his team’s season ends in Omaha, a place Wake hasn’t seen since 1955.”The expectation for this club is, ‘Let’s get to Omaha,'” Walter said. “That’s what these kids want. That’s what they’ve worked for all year. I know there’s 300 other teams out there who want the same thing, but we’ve got a realistic shot at it with this team.”