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Jacobs: Wake Forest slugger gives school hope on anniversary of baseball title

Will Craig settles his rear foot as far back in the right-handed batter’s box as it can go. His silver bat with red handle and red barrel’s end casually flicks low across the plate like a cat’s tail twitching, then transfers to his right shoulder to bounce several times before growing still, poised in menace as a pitcher prepares to deliver.

That presence at the plate has been a revelation as 26-21 Wake Forest fights to reach postseason play on the 60th anniversary of the school’s – and the ACC’s – sole College World Series championship. Wake, 11-13 in the ACC, last made the NCAA tournament in 2007.

The Demon Deacons host N.C. State (11-12 in the league) this coming weekend, their three games pivotal to determining both teams’ eligibility for the ACC baseball tournament later this month. Understandably eager to embrace the illustrious precedent set in 1955, the Deacons will honor their national championship squad at Saturday’s game against the Wolfpack.

Much has changed since Wake Forest and N.C. State were Wake County neighbors. Wake was a strict Baptist college with about 1,400 undergraduates where church attendance was required three times weekly. Dancing on campus and playing ball on Sundays were forbidden. There was talk of de-emphasizing sports, leading the school president to be hanged in effigy several times.

Athletes like third baseman Bill Barnes knew little of Omaha and the College World Series. “I had no idea that (college baseball) had a national championship,” says Barnes, a native and current resident of Landis, N.C. “We just kept playing and things kept going. We kept winning and kept winning, as things worked out.”

He pitches, too

Barnes, 80 this month, was an All-ACC running back and the league’s football player of the year in 1956, when he gained 1,000 yards. All-pro in the NFL, he starred on the Philadelphia Eagles’ 1960 championship squad and is a member of the North Carolina and Philadelphia Sports Halls of Fame. Yet his fondest memories trace to winning that ’55 baseball title. “It was the greatest feeling I’ve probably ever had in my life in sports, and I’ve done a pretty good job in sports,” he says.

For the current Wake squad to make a run at a similar achievement, much will be required of Craig, this season’s premier ACC hitter and arguably its biggest surprise. The 6-3, 230-pounder is high among the national leaders with 58 RBIs and 13 home runs, both tops in the ACC. Craig paces the conference in batting average (.404), a mark no ACC player has reached since 2010, and in slugging percentage (.754). He is also among the ACC’s best in every batting category from total bases to doubles, walks to runs scored, hits to on-base percentage. Oh, and the sophomore pitches for the Demon Deacons too.

“He’s having about as good a year as anybody’s having in the whole country,” says John Manuel, editor in chief of Baseball America. “It’s a player of the year caliber type of season. It is surprising that he’s gotten so little attention.”

Craig was recognized as a 2015 mid-season All-American, and as the Division I Midseason Player of the Year by Perfect Game, a national amateur baseball organization. Perfect Game also tabbed him the country’s 356th-best prospect coming out of high school, reflecting Craig’s chronically low profile. “He always seems like he’s under the radar,” Manuel says.

A maturing player

Craig played against lesser talent in Johnson City in eastern Tennessee, and was overweight as a high school senior. Still, he says he hit .560 in 40 games that season with nine home runs and about as many strikeouts. That earned him a faint nod in the 37th round of the 2013 baseball draft from the Kansas City Royals. Primarily recruited as a pitcher, he received college offers only from Samford, Georgia State and Wake Forest.

So, in keeping with the best underdog stories, Craig uses those slights as motivational fodder. “That kind of fuels my fire, to prove to people that they missed out,” he says evenly. “That kind of gets me going every game – I put that in the back of my mind.”

There’s more to the brown-bearded Craig’s emergence than playing with a chip on his shoulder. “He’s really made some good physical changes since his senior year in high school,” says Wake coach Tom Walter, still best known for giving a kidney to one of his players. “His body’s changed a bit and he’s worked incredibly hard. But it’s really just his maturing as a player.”

Walter bats Craig in the cleanup spot behind second baseman Nate Mondou, whose numbers are as sterling as his classmate’s, especially in league play. “Him and Mondou may be about as good as 3-4 (spots in the batting order) gets in this league,” Notre Dame coach Mik Aoti said after Wake won two of three against the gold-helmeted Fighting Irish in late April. Craig and Mondou combined for 11 hits, five for extra bases, and 6 RBIs in 26 at-bats in the series.

Particularly impressive, Craig hit a decisive home run in the second game by taking an outside pitch to the opposite field, a skill seldom displayed by young sluggers. “I think he just sort of stays within himself and tries to take what the game is giving him,” Aoti observes. “I think he’s got a really good approach at the plate, and then obviously he’s a talented kid.”

No holes in his swing

Walter said prior to the season, after a freshman year in which Craig hit .280 with eight homers, “Will is as good a pure hitter as anyone I have ever coached.” Then Craig switched from playing third base to first and DH, was asked to pitch nearly twice as often, and saw his batting stats soar.

“He’s one of those guys, he hits to all fields,” Walter notes. “He handles all types of pitches. He handles off-speed pitches and fastballs. There’s just no holes in his swing. The thing that’s really good about him, he’s a tough out with two strikes.” Demonstrating that control, Craig has struck out just 18 times in 171 official at-bats.

Playing in a hitter-friendly, artificial-turf ballpark adjacent to the school’s football stadium, Wake Forest leads the league in team batting average but is last in pitching. With the Deacons staff decimated by injuries, Craig has taken the mound more often than he did as a freshman, and more often than Walter hopes is the case next season. The coach reasonably assumes a singular focus on batting will allow Craig to improve further at the plate.

For his part, Craig, a right-hander, likes to pitch. “I enjoy having that power,” he says. He also believes the ability “to think like a pitcher” when he’s at bat makes it easier to deduce what’s likely to be thrown his way. That in turn improves the chances for Wake’s underclass-dominated squad.

“I feel like, if we play to our best potential, we could make a run at” a championship, Craig offers bravely. “A lot of people say, the best team doesn’t always win the College World Series, it’s the team that’s playing the best at the time.” Spoken like a classic late bloomer.