WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The Deacs returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, finishing the season with a 35-27 record after bowing out of the Texas A&M Regional.
The Deacs have lost sluggers Will Craig and Nate Mondou to the draft, but return a potent lineup, a lockdown Friday night starter in Parker Dunshee, and perhaps more depth on the mound than coach Tom Walter has seen in his previous six seasons at the helm.
Demon Deacon Digest’s Les Johns spoke with Walter this week. This is the first of a multi-part Q&A.
On the NCAA Tournament experience
Walter: “I think it was good to turn that corner. I felt like maybe we should have gotten there a couple of years ago. For us to finally get there, see what it’s like and see that we can play with anybody in the country was cool for us to see that. Now we have to get there and play a little better.”
On the 22-3 loss to Texas A&M
Walter: “You get into those tournaments, fall behind early and you want to save pitching, especially when you’re thin on the mound. You’re looking at the rest of the bracket, and maybe stayed with (Drew) Loepprich longer than we should have in that situation. It got away from us. When you get to that point, though, it doesn’t matter if you lose 4-2 or 22-2. A loss is a loss. You’re just trying to stay alive.”
On the response from the team when they got back in town from the tournament experience
Walter: “I think they’re hungry to get back there. Our guys have done a great job this summer. They are playing well and working hard. They’ve all come back in great shape — more so this year, though they usually do a good job with that. I think once you get there and see the big dance, it opens your eyes to ‘this is a yearly goal. It’s not an every now and then achievement.’ Our guys have been working incredibly hard this summer, and we’re excited about it.”
On if the team has the confidence to know they can overcome the losses of Will Craig and Nate Mondou
Walter: “Yeah. There’s no question. We’ve got 10 or 11 position players that have experience and have success at this level. We’ve got a couple guys coming back off injury and a some of those guys that were role players that need to step up and become every-day players like Kevin Conway did last year. We’ve got plenty of guys that should be ready and went out and had good summers. Now it’s there time.”
On how much he tracks their summer performance, and who impressed him
Walter: “Keegan Maronpot, who didn’t play a lot for us last season, had a great summer, and played well both offensively and defensively. Good power numbers and played a good third base. He stood out, along with Bruce Steel. Bruce redshirted last season. Two days before the opening game, sliding into second base he tore a ligament in his thumb. He’s finally back healthy. He played his freshman year, but wasn’t healthy then either. We’re finally seeing a healthy Bruce Steel. He was a highly-touted recruit, out of USA Baseball. We thought he was going to come out here, have a couple of great years and be a draft-type prospect. Because of injuries, he really hasn’t been able to do that. But now he’s healthy, and he should be a huge part of our offense. Those two guys positionally stood out.
“Jonathan Pryor, Stuart Fairchild, Gavin Sheets, Johnny Aiello —those four guys all went out and got better. They got significantly better. Just playing in the Cape Cod league playing against those pitchers helps you get better. Aiello is only hitting right handed now, which I think is a great solution for John. His swing is better mechanically right handed, and he hits for more power right handed. It was totally his decision and something he wanted to do. He’s been totally right handed, and I think that will make a big difference in his offensive production for us this year. Plus the fact he’s a sophomore and coming off a year in the Cape.
“Stuart and Gavin have continued to improve their game. Gavin is playing at a really high level right now, so I’m excited to see what those guys can do in the spring. Jake Mueller is another guy that didn’t play for us a lot, that went out and had a great summer. Mueller, Steel and Maronpot are the three guys that didn’t contribute a whole lot last year that we expect to be solid to good players for us this year. Then Pryor, Fairchild, Sheets and Aiello. That’s seven guys right there. We have Logan Harvey coming back healthy after his elbow injury. We were undefeated when Logan caught last year. Then Ben Breazeale finds out at the end of the summer that his vision was 20/100. Just kind of a fluky thing. He got Lasik and seeing the ball much better. That’s going to make a difference for Benny. He’s a senior and someone who’s had flashes of brilliance for us.
“That’s our top nine guys, and those are nine pretty good offensive players. If those guys can stay healthy — we won’t have the depth to account for injuries, the guys behind them are either freshmen or question marks. Who knows what we’ll get out of the freshman? Hopefully they can be role players and grow up a little bit, and be guys we can count on next year. Hopefully those nine guys stay healthy, because they are going to have to carry the water for sure.”