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A Series That Just Means More to Yours Truly (Nick)

Why does this mean more to me you might ask? Well it's complicated, but I will give you all the readers' digest on why the Wake Forest - NC State series means a lot to me and why I dread it at the same time. Afterwards, I will give you my unbiased opinion on how this series will play out.

I am originally from California and my parents did not go to big time division 1 schools. My mother went to Cal Poly and my dad went to Gonzaga, so at least there was always a rooting interest when it came to my college basketball fandom. When I was a toddler, my family moved from California to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, so Winston has always been home to me. Because I did not have a parent that went to a big time college football school, I adopted Wake Forest as my favorite college football team since I live here.

As I was growing up in Winston-Salem, my parents started a family owned deli/market in the city and over time it has become wildly popular amongst the Wake Forest population. Dioli's has become a destination spot for students, faculty, staff, and athletes. I have met some pretty amazing people that walked through our doors while I've worked for my parents, including Wake Forest athletes. Ever since I was little kid, I have always been into sports. I was watching and playing up to my senior year of high school, so it's always been easy for me to strike up a conversation when I recognize a student athlete from Wake Forest.

Becoming a hot spot for the Wake Forest community has also given my family the opportunity to cater for a lot of the athletic programs. One of those opportunities came from the Demon Deacon baseball team. Without a doubt they have been our favorite team to cater for because not only do they use us the most for catering jobs, they are our number one customers in general when it comes to foot traffic in the store.

Since moving back to Winston-Salem in 2021 after living in Raleigh for college, I have made some special bonds with the Wake Forest players and staff. They have been overly generous when it came to supporting us-- treating us to tickets to games and autographing baseballs and baseball cards. They have been the coolest dudes I have met in my life. Going into last years season, three of the players-- Seth Keener, Lucas Costello, and Adam Cecere-- were nice enough to come on my ACC Podcast, "Just Means Less ACC" that I help run with my co-host Micah Beutell. Going into this season, Wake's highly touted pitching coach Corey Muscara joined us as well. In some ways, they have considered us part of the team and were nice enough to invite my brother and I to celebrate with them the night they clinched their spot in the College World Series following a sweep of 16th seeded Alabama in the Super Regionals last year. And yes, I went to Omaha to supported the boys and stayed as long as they played. Obviously we supported them and bought season tickets this year.

On the Wolfpack side, I graduated from North Carolina State in 2020. The fandom I have for my Alma Mater is real and it's hard not to be as the school promotes its pride everywhere you go. The question that was and is always asked around campus is what kind of sports school were we? Are we a football school? Basketball? Baseball? I have yet to find answer to that. But one thing I will say about it is that we as supporters show up no matter what. NC State has one of the most passionate fanbases in college athletics regardless of the sport, so we don't really care what kind of school you think we are. We're just going to show up in our red and white and act like maniacs.

I have met some of my best friends while attending NC State and all three of my younger siblings either have or will have graduated from State as well, so the family dynasty is as real as our fandom. Even my sister, who now lives in Texas, stays connected to me through our discussions about NC State sports. Many of my best sports memories involve Wolfpack athletics; the run the 2021 baseball team went on; storming the court against Duke in 2020; Braxton Berverly hitting a buzzer beater to beat Clemson; beating UNC in football three years in a row with the most dramatic finishes I have ever seen; and the latest Final Four run the basketball team went on this year led by DJ Burns.

My closest friends and I have made it a tradition to go to the NC State vs UNC football game every year during Thanksgiving. Hell, I even run an NC State fan account on twitter. And obviously I still root for the baseball team passionately. I have met several players over the years, and interacted with a few on twitter as well. Like every NC State fan I know that the 2021 run was not a fluke and we are still chasing the high from that run. We are hoping that one day the baseball team returns to Omaha and avenges what happened to the 2021 team when they were unjustly disqualified. To say that I was upset is an understatement. I had the NCAA Baseball twitter notifications on and from then on I just replied to every tweet about what they did to the point where they blocked me. Seriously, I have it pinned on my personal profile (@ndioli74). So, I guess mission accomplished? One day I hope that ESPN makes a 30 for 30 film on that team and shows the world what happened.

Okay, so this wasn't much of a readers' digest version, but that's my personal connection to this series. I will always root for Wake Forest unless they are playing NC State. But when it comes to baseball... I just hope that both teams have fun while wishing it was a 4 game series they could split evenly every year.

Let's get to the match-up. These are the two hottest teams in the ACC right now and are very similar in terms of play and how their seasons have gone to this point. Both struggled somewhat out the gate, both have lost a lot of mid-weeks, both have had their stars struggle to start, and both have had struggling bullpens. But things have changed and now both are heating up when it matters most.

Wake Forest had key pieces return to the bullpen like Cole Roland and Crawford Wade. The veteran presence has settled the younger arms in this staff to become a completely different bullpen from the first half of the season. Nick Kurtz has returned to being one of the best hitters in the nation, but now has a dangerous supporting cast around him. Jack Winnay, Seaver King, and Jake Reinisch have been delivering in the lineup and having All-ACC caliber seasons.

Then there's the weekend rotation. Chase Burns is leading the country in strikeouts with 156 and already broke Rhett Lowder's single season record, which was set just last year. The former Tennessee Volunteer has been in the top three in ERA in the ACC all year and currently sits at 2.85, which is only behind Florida State's Jamie Arnold for qualified starting pitchers. Josh Hartle is back to where we expected after recently setting a season high 9 strikeouts last week against Clemson. The biggest question was is if Michael Massey would start this week. Massey has been dealing with a lingering injury all season, but it's already been confirmed that we'll see David Falco start again in his place.

NC State has been the ACC giant killers all season. They won home series against #9 Duke, and #11 UNC, and road series against #2 Clemson and #10 Virginia. They also split a road series at #7 Florida State. All told, they went 9-5 against those Top 15 teams and has forced their way into the Regional hosting conversation. The Wolfpack lineup is getting more dangerous as the season goes on. Garrett Pennington and Alec Makarewicz have been the two giants in the lineup and have been coming up big in clutch moments, but now guys like Jacob Cozart, Brandon Butterworth, the Nixon brothers, and Eli Serrano have stepped up and show consistency. The offense has also gotten a boost from the returns of Noah Soles and freshman star Alex Sosa from injuries as well.

The bullpen struggled out the gate, but have found two freshman studs that have been rock solid this season in Jacob Dudan and Cooper Consiglio. Unfortunately for State, they have been bitten by the injury bug again and again this year. As resilient as the team have been, you start to question when will it come back to bite them or if they have the depth. Losing Shane Van Dam for the year hurts the bullpen tremendously as he has been nails all season. So guys like Hollis Fanning, Andrew Shaffner, and Derrick Smith have to step up. This will be the third or fourth time we will see a healthy rotation with Sam Highfill, Dominic Fritton, and Logan Whittaker, who returned to the rotation after a six week illness last weekend. The rotation has been a little shaky trying to find a replacement for Whitaker and an under performing season by Fritton.

Since 2022, the Deacs have had their way with the Wolfpack with a 5-1 record and the one win for the NC State was in the 2022 ACC Tournament. The stakes are high for this series because so much is on the line. The Atlantic Division is still up for grabs with the top 4 teams-- including Clemson and Florida State-- still competing for the crown. Just a half game separates State and Wake in the standings and hosting a Regional is still in the cards for State if they have one more stone to slay yet another Goliath standing in their way. Wake Forest would solidify their hosting credentials as well and give them a chance at a top 8 seed that would automatically qualify them to host the Super Regionals should they advance that far.

It seems as if we had a dozen "Series of the Year" in the ACC, but I personally picked this one to be the "Series of the Year" when we previewed it on the 'Just Means Less' Podcast back in February. With both teams getting hot at the right time, we are on a collision course with a wide variety of circumstances for both teams.

Who will win? It's very close because both teams are similar and have gone through similar phases throughout the season, but ultimately I think Wake Forest takes this series with two of three wins. Injuries in the bullpen for State are my concern. If the guys can't step up for the Wolfpack, Wake's bats will take advantage. But either way, I think it'll be one for the books.

Don't ask who I'm rooting for because if you do, I'm just going to use the cliche term and say I hope both teams have fun and maybe I'll take Wake Forest reliever Will Ray's advice and get a split jersey.

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