Demon Deacons outfight the Illini

Wake Forest pitchers strike out 35 Illini


Courtesy of Wake Forest Athletics

Brock Wilken and Nick Kurtz embrace during Sunday’s game against the Illini.

Sean Kennedy, Assistant Sports Editor

The Illinois Fighting Illini were like a deer in headlights when they came up against preseason All-American Rhett Lowder in the Saturday afternoon contest.

The junior, from Albemarle, N.C., had a shaky first inning after letting up a two-out RBI single to Illini left fielder Ryan Moerman, which scored one run. Escaping with men on base, Lowder would prove to be his dominant self in the coming innings.

Though Illini starting pitcher Jack Crowder retired the side in the bottom of the first, in the second, he struggled with command against the likes of Jake Reinisch, Bennett Lee and Adam Cecere, each of whom walked consecutively. After a Danny Corona strikeout, Crowder found himself in the danger zone yet again, plunking Justin Johnson to bring in a run. A putout at first base would strand multiple runners on base, and the two sides would head into the third knotted at one run apiece.

Eventually, Lowder found his rhythm and threw four scoreless frames to complete his outing. He also struck out 10 Illini while only walking one.

“The biggest thing I learned [this weekend] was that our pitching has a chance to be really good,” Head Coach Tom Walters said after Sunday’s second game.  

Lowder for Wake Forest and Crowder for Illinois traded zeroes until the bottom of the fifth. Ty Rybarczyk, who relieved Crowder, walked two straight batters. A Lucas Costello sacrifice bunt put runners on second and third with one out. Each of them would score on a Lee single to centerfield, putting the Demon Deacons up two. Cecere would then follow up Lee’s RBI single with a home run to left field. Wake Forest now led 5-1. 

Two more home runs would increase the Demon Deacon advantage to 8-1, a 362-foot solo shot from Kurtz — his third of four home runs on the weekend and a Wilken two-run blast that traveled 414 feet.

The bullpen backed up Lowder in a big way, thanks to four incredible frames from Sean Sullivan. Sullivan, who struck out 10 batters, would be named ACC Pitcher of the Week due to his performance in the game. 

Sunday’s matchup, the second of a split-team doubleheader, saw sophomore left-hander Josh Hartle take the mound. Hartle, who was a regular starter for the Demon Deacons last season, is looking to improve upon a 2022 campaign in which he pitched nearly 70 innings while fanning 54 batters last year.

After Hartle struck out seven through the first three frames, he faltered slightly when Fighting Illini right fielder Cam McDonald snuck a solo home run down the right-field line in the top of the fourth. Hartle would get out of the inning after a flyout to center from Harding, and it would be the only run that the Illini would score all day.

Rake Forest was on full display Sunday, and the scoring started early for the Demon Deacons as they saw solo home runs in consecutive innings, each of which was hit to left center field. Bennett would send a 376-foot blast in the first, while Cecere followed that up with a 400-foot moonshot as the leadoff hitter in the second. Cecere homered again — his fourth — in the bottom of the seventh, an absolute rocket that traveled 424 feet. Kurtz, who would be named the ACC Player of the Week for this weekend’s performance, also notched his fourth home run of the weekend in the home fifth. Justin Johnson joined the party for his first home run in a Demon Deacon uniform in the eighth to round out a 10-run, five-homer game for the Demon Deacons.

In the last appearance at the plate for the Fighting Illini, they had to go against Demon Deacon closer Camden Minacci, who would strike out three of five batters and not allow a run to score, allowing the game to result in a 10-1 victory for the Demon Deacons.