Tom Walter's Demon Deacons finished one win shy of Omaha in 2017 and set numerous program records, including ACC wins (19), home runs (106) and MLB Draft picks (8). Here's an inside look at his program...
Inside Pitch: You started out in baseball as an Assistant GM for the Greensboro Bats (now called the Grasshoppers), is that correct?
First off, that title sounds a lot more glamorous that is really is! For example if the snow cone lady doesn’t show up that night, that’s what you’re doing, you’re pulling tarp, you’re doing a lot of those things.
On the positive side, you get to deal with the media and with the big league team. It was a great thing for me because I got to learn a different side of the game. Like anything else, you have to learn what works and what doesn’t work, it’s a lot of trial and error.
IP: Was there an ‘aha’ moment when you realized you wanted to coach?
I was interviewing for some finance jobs and I didn’t really find anything that I liked. I’d be sitting across someone in a job interview and think, ‘that’s not what I want to be in 15-20 years.’
The opportunity to be a GA at George Washington University came up and I took it. They paid for my classes and I had to piece the rest together – I worked in the equipment room, I tutored volleyball players, I worked a couple days a week at a restaurant, I’d take construction jobs, I was doing whatever it took to make it.
The guy that hired me for the Greensboro job was a GWU alum that I’d gotten to know. The idea was that he was eventually going to get an MLB team, but it fell through at the last minute. When that didn’t work out, I made the decision to get back into coaching, and the GWU head job came open. The timing was very fortuitous, it was right before school and they wanted to hire somebody with some familiarity with the program and its uniqueness – we had an off-campus facility and we weren’t fully-funded. So they were willing to take a chance on a 27-year old, I think in large part because I knew how to get to the field!
IP: You led one of the top offenses in the country last year. What is your hitting philosophy?
First and foremost, we want to get kids who are talented. Second is work ethic – hitting is something you have to do every day. We ask our guys all the time to “do a little bit, a lot” instead of “a lot a little bit.” Some guys will want to hit for an hour and a half before a game, we’d rather have guys hit for 20-30 minutes on a daily basis. Third is preparation. We want each of our guys to understand what their swings are supposed to look like, to have goals for their swings.
Inside Pitch: Are there any certain hitting drills that you use on a regular basis?
One thing we do is hit on the field every day. We don’t miss a day, unless weather gives us no chance to do it. We want our guys to see a live arm on the field at practice, every day.
Having a specific drill series that guys can work on in the cage is important, because you can give guys confidence with a detailed plan before they hit on the field or play in a game. One thing we do a lot of in the cages is hit breaking balls from the machine. I’m a big fan of working on being able to handle that pitch.
Inside Pitch: Wake was also one of the top fielding teams in the country last year. What are some ways that you develop your players defensively?
Our go-to is live ground balls. We’ll side flip to the pitchers – who love this drill because they get to hit – and they’ll bang balls to our defenders and run the bases hard. You need some fungos and drills and things like that, but getting to practice at game speed is critical.
Most of our catchers’ drill work is focused on hip mobility. Without it, they have very little chance to be successful; to block, to receive, even to throw at a high level.
Our outfielders are always working on angles. The main thing that most outfielders have to make an adjustment with at the college level is just putting their heads down and running to a spot.
Inside Pitch: You are a proven program-builder. What would you say are your ‘building blocks’ for success?
It’s not rocket science. You put a program and a system in place for young men to be successful, and you put talented men into that program, and most of the time you’ll get a team that wins. The most important thing is getting buy in from your players. They have to respect their coaches and want to play. Kids today want to be successful. I get frustrated when I hear people say ‘kids today don’t want to work.’ That’s not true, kids today love to put in work, they just have to believe in what they’re working towards.
I hate saying this because it makes me feel older than I am, but it’s not quite like it was when I was growing up! Kids don’t just do what the coaches say on blind faith, they have to be motivated. The reality is if they’re buying in to what you’re doing and they believe in each other, they’ll go to work for you every single day. I’ve seen that everywhere I’ve been.
As coaches, we give our players three things: information, resources and opportunity. After that it’s up to them, they have to make the most of things. At each of our stops, it was very important to put players in place that understood that they were playing for something bigger than themselves. Yes, we wanted our guys to get degrees and opportunities to play pro ball, but at the same time, they had to make sacrifices for each other and put the work in. At the end of the day, the ‘x factor’ is the work ethic.
You’re not winning in our league unless you have pro players, our league is just too good. Something recruits always hear from me is ‘Do you like baseball, love baseball or live baseball?’ There’s a huge distinction. You have to make decisions every day that reflect the answer to that question. The truth is that you just won’t end up with 100% of your guys that live baseball, you have to mesh everyone together.
Inside Pitch: If you could only have one ‘building block,’ what would it be?
Having leadership come from the players. I can’t even tell you how important that is. If a coach says something a lot can go in one ear and out the other for players. If a player says something to another player – they don’t forget that, that makes an impact.
Our captains from last year, I can’t even say enough great things about them. Parker Dunshee, Gavin Sheets and John McCarren. Three really different captains – Parker was a competitor, a bulldog, you didn’t want to let him down. Gavin was more of a lead by example type, and John was the guy that you could lean on if another player needed to bend an ear.
That team dynamic is so important, there’s not much difference talent-wise between the best team and the sixth-best team in most conferences. Why do some teams consistently win? It’s the mindset, the work ethic and effort.
Inside Pitch: What’s your advice to coaches who have recently taken over their own programs?
I always go back to the word ‘accountability.’ If you can establish that within your program, kids today just respond to it better. You’ll have players that will question different things in the locker room, and if a team leader stands up and says ‘this is how we do things and this is why,’ that issue is over. If they don’t and things aren’t going well, sometimes it little things can turn into a big deal. At the end of the day a lot of those things don’t really matter, but it players feel like their voice is being heard, they respond differently. Kids today are brought up to ask questions, and for us coaches not to adapt to that, we’re making a big mistake. It’s up to us to engage our players and get them invested in our program.