Knocked flat on his back, Will Wilson was slightly dazed and more so concerned after he had spit out a couple of teeth. He didn’t know if he was in the middle of a baseball game or a Quentin Tarantino movie.
The N.C. State shortstop could have cursed the baseball gods for getting injured on a home run or the UNC-Wilmington player he accidentally collided with on the basepath, or even another N.C. State-specific hex, but that’s not the cut of Wilson’s jib.
“I was lucky,” said Wilson, who suffered a concussion on the collision with UNCW first baseman Doug Angeli in the first inning of N.C. State’s 14-7 win on April 16.
Lucky? The way Wilson figures, it could have been a lot worse. He could have broken his jaw or suffered a serious knee injury. So, he missed six games in April? N.C. State dearly missed him but it was a relatively small price to pay for the Wolfpack, which opens NCAA tournament play in the Greenville Regional on Friday (noon) against Campbell.
N.C. State (42-17) has the longest streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (five) by any baseball program in the state. The Wolfpack’s success this season, which began with modest expectations but changed when it ripped off 19 straight wins to open the schedule, is largely because of Wilson.
The 6-0, 184-pound junior from Kings Mountain leads the team in batting (.346 average), home runs (16) and is second in RBIs (57). After going undrafted out of high school, he is projected to be one of the top 20 picks in the Major League Baseball draft on Monday.
He was named to the All-ACC team and as the league’s defensive player of the year. But there’s more to Wilson’s value to the team than his awards or stats, as his “lucky” comment suggests. His easy-going demeanor and laid-back personality have a calming effect on the rest of the team and even coach Elliott Avent, who is normally a nervous bundle of energy.
There’s a certain Zen required to take such a freakish accident, like the one from the UNCW game, in stride.
“Baseball’s a hard game, a game of failure,” Wilson said matter-of-factly with a side of philosophical wax.
The ability to calibrate that mindset at 21 is rare but the pensive junior reminds Avent of another Wilson — former Wolfpack quarterback and second baseman Russell Wilson.
“Like Russell, he just gives everybody that confidence and he steadies everything,” Avent said. “He has such a great demeanor for this game and a such a great belief in himself.”
Earning his way
Baseball is in Wilson’s blood. His grandfather, Ronnie, is in the Erskine College hall of fame. His mom, Robin, played softball at Winthrop.
He got some of his calm demeanor and patience from Robin, a second-grade teacher, and his understanding of numbers from his dad, Brad, a commercial banker. Wilson earned his finance degree from N.C. State in three years, even without the help of summer-school courses.
But good genes are only part of the equation. Brad Wilson brought his son a batting cage and Jugs machine when Will was 7 and set them up in the backyard.
“He was always out there,” his dad said. “Everything he has, he has earned.”
Wilson played football and basketball in middle school. In high school, he was a fearless nose guard turned quarterback on the gridiron before he gave it up to concentrate on baseball. With his glasses on, Wilson looks more like Greg Maddux than J.J. Watt but there’s a competitive streak in Wilson that makes the defensive stopper role believable.
“He wants to win, that’s his only focus,” his dad said.
Wilson hit .538 at Kings Mountain High as a senior with 14 home runs in 26 games but wasn’t drafted. He was part of the all “too” team — too small, too slow, too weak.
“The scouts didn’t think he’d be big enough or fast enough,” his dad said. “I told him, look, one day, all that’s going to matter is you can play or you can’t.”
A remarkable focus
A tribute to the scouting ability of Avent and Chris Hart, they believed in Wilson. His classic under-the-radar story isn’t all that different from Trea Turner, the hitting star of N.C. State’s 2013 College World Series team. Hart, the primary recruiter, mined Turner from Florida in 2012 and Wilson five years later from the small town 32 miles west of Charlotte.
A tribute to the development and coaching ability of Avent and Hart, both Turner and Wilson turned into All-ACC shortstops. Turner, and pitcher Carlos Rodon, were the last two first-round picks for N.C. State in 2014. As good as they were, they had bouts with “draft fever” as juniors and the Wolfpack missed the NCAA tournament that year.
Wilson has been remarkable in his ability to focus and avoid even the slightest notion of worrying about the likely $3 million bonus that awaits him on Monday or his big-league future.
“Will has handled (the draft) better than any player I’ve ever had,” Avent said. “He just wants to win the game so bad. He doesn’t think about himself or anything else.”
And that includes his own well-being. The collision at UNCW came because he hit a line drive to left field. He thought it was going to be a double, so he was running full speed.
When the ball went over the wall, Wilson didn’t see it. He ran into the back of Angeli and fell down. He actually played in N.C. State’s next game but then showed signs of a second-impact concussion.
He was shut down for the next six games. N.C. State lost three of the five ACC games without him to Wake Forest and Notre Dame, a pair of teams that didn’t make the NCAA tournament.
Wilson never even thought about how the injury might affect his draft potential.
“With what we’re going through a tough time, I just knew I needed to get back out there to help,” Wilson said.
He came back for N.C. State’s game with UNCW on April 30 and went 0 for 5. Avent said it was the “best 0 for 5 I’ve ever seen.”
The Wolfpack won 11-3 and finished the regular season with a flourish. Wilson, since that collar in the first game back, has hit .426 (20 of 47) with 13 RBIs.
“He’s just special,” said junior designated hitter Brad Debo, Wilson’s roommate. “It’s unbelievable what he has meant to us.”
NC State vs. Campbell
Greenville Regional, NCAA baseball tournament
When: Noon, Friday
Where: Clark-LeClair Stadium, Greenville