(Photo courtesy of Wake Forest Baseball)
Only once during the Super Regional era of the NCAA baseball tournament has the #1-overall seed won the Men's College World Series. In 1999, the Miami Hurricanes dogpiled in Omaha after winning the National Championship as the tournament's #1-overall seed. Since then, we've seen giant after giant fall before reaching the summit of college baseball's highest peak. In recent years, there's been whispers that the top seed is cursed, even if they manage to survive the first two phases of the tournament.
In 2021, Arkansas went 50-13 and seemed a lock to make it to Omaha, but they lost Super Regional Games 2 and 3 to NC State. Last season, Tennessee was the undisputed best team in the country, as they carved through the vaunted SEC at 25-5, winning both the regular season and tournament titles. They didn't make it to Omaha either, Super Regional opponent Notre Dame did. The last #1-overall seed to even make it to the MCWS was the 2018 Florida Gators, when Oregon State, not they, won it all.
Wake Forest is aware of all that. When asked if he felt his team had a target on their backs, two-time ACC Pitcher of the Year Rhett Lowder said, "They said there's the number-one seed curse to get here, but then we got here. It kind of doesn't matter the seeding anymore. Everyone is going to be good, so if we play a good, clean game, that's all we can do."
Third baseman Brock Wilken echoed his Demon Deacons teammate. "That ranking means something until you get here. Once you get here, those rankings mean nothing anymore. It's just about who goes out, plays the loosest and has the most fun. That team is more than likely going to win."
Coach Tom Walter didn't even mention their top seed, instead just stressed the need to respond to adversity. "Whether it's a tough loss that you have to respond for, or if you have given up a four spot, how you respond is everything. Our team has handled those situations really well. I just don't see how this week is going to be any different for those guys."
Wake Forest has been historically good this season, in large part thanks to the play of Lowder and Wilken. The Deacs led the NCAA in most pitching categories, including an incredible 2.84 team ERA, which is almost a full run less than second place Tennessee. But, Wake Forest is known for their power as well, ranking in the top five nationally with 129 home runs. In the clinching game of their Super Regional over Alabama, they hit nine home runs en route to a 22-5 win. Wake Forest isn't worried about the size of Charles Schwab Field causing their sluggers any issues, however.
"It actually looks a lot bigger on TV than it is in person," said Wilken, who is now the ACC's career home run king. "So going out there and trying to stay within our plan and in our approach, if we do that, we'll be alright."
Coach Walter wasn't so confident. "We certainly can't expect some of the home runs we've hit at our ballpark or other ballparks in the ACC," he said. "We definitely have to lower our ball flight in general and change our pitch plan a little bit too."
The Demon Deacons are in Omaha for the first time since their National Championship way back in 1955. They've overcome the pressures of being the top seed to make it this far, something neither Tennessee nor Arkansas was able to accomplish in recent years. Even though they're the top seed and focused on a National Championship, the players took the time to appreciate their accomplishment in making it to this moment.
"It's really eye-opening," said Wilken. "You don't really grasp the scope of how special this moment really is until you get to step on that field."
Lowder was just as starstruck by the moment when the team looked out at the field from above. "I didn't see it until we just got here. I was up top and looked down, and it took the breath away from me."
Wake Forest is enjoying their moment in the sun right now, but once Saturday rolls around, there won't be time for that. "Once we step in between those lines," said Lowder, "we only have one goal, and that's to bring it home."
For Walter, there's no question that his team will be ready. "I think it's no different than heading into a regional or a weekend series really. So it's just getting ready for Stanford at this point."
The Demon Deacons are prepared for the bright lights, and they've made it this far as the top overall seed. Curse or no curse, if Wake Forest plays to the level of which they are capable, they'll have a good chance to join that 1999 Miami team in the history books.
"We're battle-tested. We've been through our league. We've been through the conference tournament, the regional, and now," said Walter. "We feel like if we do our thing, we're going to be in really good shape."
#1 Wake Forest takes on #8 Stanford on Saturday afternoon at 2:00 PM on ESPN.