Wake Forest duo from Baylor among former Chattanooga-area stars in College World Series

AP photo by Matt Kelley / Wake Forest baseball players celebrate after a home run by Danny Corona (3) during the fifth inning of an NCAA super regional game against Alabama last Saturday in Winston-Salem, N.C. Corona and fellow former Baylor School standout Nick Kurtz have the No. 1 Demon Deacons back in the College World Series for the first time since the program won the 1955 national championship.
AP photo by Matt Kelley / Wake Forest baseball players celebrate after a home run by Danny Corona (3) during the fifth inning of an NCAA super regional game against Alabama last Saturday in Winston-Salem, N.C. Corona and fellow former Baylor School standout Nick Kurtz have the No. 1 Demon Deacons back in the College World Series for the first time since the program won the 1955 national championship.

As Baylor School seniors, Danny Corona and Nick Kurtz were part of the team that won the Red Raiders’ third straight state championship and earned recognition in the national prep rankings. Just two years later, Corona and Kurtz are part of a Wake Forest program that is No. 1 in the country and making its first trip to the College World Series in seven decades.

And as the Demon Deacons headed from Winston Salem, North Carolina, this week to Omaha, Nebraska, where the CWS starts Friday, the pair of Baylor grads weren’t just along for the ride — they were helping drive the push to be national champions.

Corona is arguably the hottest hitter in college baseball after going 8-for-18 with six home runs and 17 RBIs over his past four games as Wake Forest’s designated hitter.

“This experience has been pretty crazy,” the left-handed hitting Corona, who has a .302 average with 22 extra-base hits and 43 RBIs this season, told the Times Free Press. “Our team motto that we have on the front of our shirts is: ‘Make them feel you.’ Every day we are on the field, we are out there to give our best performance and put on a show. We just want to keep winning.”

Wake Forest is in the CWS for just the third time overall and the first time since beating Western Michigan for the 1955 national title — a span of 68 years, going back to when Wake Forest University was actually in Wake Forest, North Carolina (the school’s main campus relocated to Winston-Salem in 1956).

 

While it’s been a long time since the Demon Deacons were among the eight final teams remaining, there’s nothing surprising about their presence in Omaha now after a dominant regular season and a run through the NCAA tournament’s regionals and super regionals.

Wake Forest (52-10) is the most well-rounded team in Omaha. The Demon Deacons not only have the most wins among this year’s CWS qualifiers, they are tied for fourth in the country with 129 home runs and are first in the nation by a lot with a 2.84 team ERA.

Kurtz leads the Deacons with a .370 batting average and a .538 on-base percentage. The left-handed, power-hitting first baseman’s elite performance, which includes 24 home runs and 69 RBIs this year, prompted ESPN.com’s Kiley McDaniel to label him college baseball’s best prospect in the entire MLB draft-eligible class for 2024.

“We have had a lot of talk about the expectations and all the hype on us this year,” Kurtz said in an interview with the ACC Baseball Etc. podcast in February. “The one thing we try to focus on is just to black it out and not listen to the outside noise too much, but instead be present in the moment.”

FAMILIAR FEEL

Corona sees a major similarity in Wake Forest’s 2023 team and the national powerhouses he played for at Baylor, including the 2021 team that won the Red Raiders’ third straight TSSAA Division II-AA title (that followed the 2018 and 2019 titles, with no state tournament held in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic).

“This fall, we put so much time into team culture, which is something teams overlook,” Corona said. “We have seen it pay off during the season, and we all believe in one another. At Baylor, Coach (Mike) Kinney and Coach (Greg) Elie would instill team chemistry building activities to our team. We were super close, and I feel that’s why we played so well at Baylor.

“You can’t ever overlook the importance of how tight-knit a team is and how hard they work together.”

Wake Forest hit 12 home runs and scored 27 runs in two games last weekend to sweep Alabama in the Winston-Salem Super Regional. Kurtz and Corona combined for three of Wake Forest’s nine home runs — the Demon Deacons tied the record for homers in an NCAA tourney game — in Sunday’s 22-5 victory to clinch a CWS berth.

“Nick and Danny talked about this when they were here,” Elie said. “They told us to watch what they were going to be able to do with the Wake Forest team. It is a joy as a coach to watch them achieve their goals and accomplish their dreams. There’s nothing more gratifying than watching them get to do that. I am pulling for them. It’s going to be exciting to watch them in Omaha, and we wish them nothing but the best.”

The double-elimination event begins Friday with two games for bracket one as Oral Roberts (51-12) faces TCU (42-22) at 2 p.m. Eastern and No. 2 Florida (50-15) takes on No. 7 Virginia (50-13) at 7. Bracket two begins Saturday with the Demon Deacons facing No. 8 Stanford (42-18) at 2 p.m. and No. 5 LSU (48-15) playing Tennessee (42-20) at 7.

The winners of each bracket will meet in the best-of-three championship series that starts June 24.


MORE THAN TWO

Corona and Kurtz are just two of six former Chattanooga-area high school standouts who are part of the proceedings. That includes two more former Red Raiders in Virginia freshman Henry Godbout and Tennessee sophomore Christian Moore.

Godbout won the 2022 Tennessee Mr. Baseball award for the Red Raiders and is batting .291 with 17 extra-base hits, 38 RBIs and nine stolen bases for the Cavaliers.

Moore leads the Volunteers with 66 runs scored and is batting .313 with 17 home runs, 48 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and 50 walks. He played for Baylor’s 2019 title team as a sophomore.

“All of these guys have dreamed to be champions at every level,” Elie said. “It’s pretty amazing they are able to do this and have this experience. For Mike and myself, this has been a ball to watch them play for the last month. We had a lot of guys make deep postseason runs. At any given moment there are seven to eight guys starting for powerful Division I programs from Baylor. That number is just going to continue to grow.”

Two of the area’s former preps stars in Omaha are pitchers.

Camden Sewell has posted a 19-3 overall record with a 2.73 ERA and 166 strikeouts in 172 1/3 innings during his Tennessee career after starring for Cleveland High School. This will be his second CWS appearance with the Vols, who are back after a one-year absence.

Meanwhile, Cade Fisher has been dominant as a freshman southpaw for Florida. A graduate of Northwest Whitfield in Tunnel Hill, Georgia, he is 6-0 with a 3.02 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings.

Wake Forest ended a short drought for NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds making it to the CWS, with the Demon Deacons the first in Omaha since 2018. Now they’ll try to be the first top-ranked team to win it all since the Miami Hurricanes in 1999.

If they do, there’s a good chance Baylor School and Chattanooga will have more reasons to be proud of Corona and Kurtz.

“We don’t really talk about being No. 1,” Corona said. “We just love to play the game. We don’t really care about the opponent we are playing. We are just focused on having fun and playing with each other. We want to represent the city of Winston-Salem to the best of our abilities.”

Contact Patrick MacCoon at pmaccoon@timesfreepress.com.

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