2017 NCAA Regionals: Wake Wallops UMBC

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—Tom Walter barely slept this week. He kept thinking, “When is Friday at 7 going to come?” Every day, it felt further away. Even when he was standing on Gene Hooks Field at David F. Couch Ballpark an hour and a half before game time Friday, Walter felt as though the clock were ticking backward.

Then, finally, the 2,743 fans took their seats, senior righthander Connor Johnstone took the mound, and the Wake Forest head coach took a breath.

Finally, it was Friday at 7. And finally, for the first time in 15 years, Wake Forest was hosting an NCAA regional.

It was the moment Walter had been waiting for when he took over the Demon Deacons in 2009—the moment he and his assistant coaches had been building toward. In front of the largest, most electric crowd Wake Forest has seen since it moved into the former minor league park permanently, Walter’s Deacons put on a show.

Buoyed by two big offensive innings and 7.2 solid frames from Johnstone, Wake Forest defeated No. 4-seed Maryland-Baltimore County, 11-3, to advance to a winner’s bracket duel against West Virginia on Saturday.

“First and foremost, a great win for the program,” an elated Walter said after the game. “What a crowd tonight, we could feel that energy from the dugout, we were so pumped to play in front of that crowd, a packed house tonight, and I think it’s going to be even bigger tomorrow.

“We were pretty fired up about the energy in the ballpark tonight. Starting with (Johnstone), obviously he goes out and gives us an unbelievable start. We put together two big innings—had a six-run inning where we strung quality at-bats together, and a four-run inning.”

The six-run inning came in the second, in which 10 batters came to the plate and first baseman Gavin Sheets batted twice. Sheets led off the inning with a single, and from there the baton moved down the lineup. Second baseman Jake Mueller drove in three with a bases-clearing double, and center fielder Stuart Fairchild added an RBI double of his own.

Contrary to the regional’s first game, in which West Virginia slugged six home runs, Wake Forest scored all 11 runs without a homer—showcasing an offensive versatility that can often be overlooked.

“Usually, in the past our offense is based off the home run; we score a lot of runs from the home run,” Fairchild said, “But it’s good to see that even on a day that we don’t hit a home run, we can still string quality at-bats together, and coach Walter is huge on that. That’s how you win games, stringing quality at-bats together. We were able to do that together for multiple innings, and that’s what got us the win.”

UMBC did have its opportunities to claw back into the game. In the sixth inning, the Retrievers loaded the bases with no outs and scored a run on a sacrifice fly. But then senior catcher Ben Breazeale fired to first to pick off a runner, and on the next play, right fielder Keegan Maronpot threw out a runner trying to score after he had bobbled a ball in right.

That sequence sucked the momentum out of the UMBC dugout, and the Deacons all but sealed the game by scoring four more runs in the bottom half of the inning.

While the Deacons know they still have more work to do, they also recognized the significance of earning a hosting bid and being able to play an NCAA regional in front of their own home fans.The Deacons had gotten a taste of that postseason atmosphere a year ago, when they earned an at-large bid in the College Station Regional, but this—hosting—was an entirely different experience.

“It’s unreal,” Breazeale said. “The crowd’s never been that big. And that’s just a cool experience anywhere you go.”

Breazeale’s batterymate, Johnstone, said that—before Friday’s game—he had never gotten a standing ovation. That changed when he walked off the mound in the eighth inning, after allowing just three runs and striking out seven. He said he got goosebumps as the fans in black and gold serenaded him.

“It was an incredible feeling,” Johnstone said. “When I got here freshman year, I never expected to start the first game in a hosted regional here. That’s definitely something that every freshman who steps on campus dreams about, is being the guy that starts and goes really deep into the game, and has everybody cheering him on the whole game, so it was incredible.”

For Johnstone and Breazeale and the rest of the seniors and for Walter and the rest of his coaching staff, that experience was a culmination of years of program-building.

“I’m so proud of our guys and happy for our guys,” Walter said. “First and foremost, I’m really happy for this group of seniors that came in and bought into the program and believed in each other to have gotten to this point.

“But secondly, I’m just proud of the program and to see the hard work our assistant coaches have put in rewarded, and our administration—we’ve just had so many people step forward with this program, and it’s good to be able to pay it forward.”

Now, the wait begins for Saturday at 7.

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