The University of Maryland baseball program had waited a long time for this moment.
When Terps reliever Bobby Ruse struck out South Carolina pinch-hitter Patrick Harrington to complete a 10-1 win and a three-game sweep of the 2014 Columbia Regional, a school that had rarely tasted success in the NCAA tournament was able to celebrate an unexpected triumph that pushed the program within two victories of the College World Series.
The Terps didn't make it past the next round, losing to host University of Virginia in a best-of-three NCAA Super Regional clash that went the distance. But Maryland's first appearance in the NCAA tournament since the 1971 season had set the standard for all future Maryland baseball teams.
Maryland did it again during the 2015 season. The Terps set a school single-season record with 42 victories, breaking the previous record of 40 wins set in 2014. Maryland beat Mississippi in the opening round of the Los Angeles Regional, then defeated tournament overall No. 1 seed UCLA twice to earn its way back to the Super Regional. For the second consecutive season, Maryland was eliminated in the round of 16 in Charlottesville, Va., dropping two straight games to a Virginia team that went on to win the College World Series. But Maryland had fortified its spot among the best collegiate baseball programs in the nation.
"We wanted to have a legacy and not have [the NCAA tournament] be just a one-year thing," junior pitcher Mike Shawaryn said. "My expectations from freshman year to now have taken a ... turn. In my first year, people were happy that we made the ACC tournament. This year, if we don't make it to Omaha or the Super Regionals, it's going to be a disappointment."
The Long Way Back
Maryland had experienced baseball success before. During the 1970 and 1971 seasons, the Terps won consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championships and made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament. But those teams went a combined 1-4 in the double-elimination format.
Following the NCAA appearances of 1970 and 1971, the Terps remained competitive for the next decade. But after posting consecutive winning seasons in 1980 and 1981, the Maryland program entered a long, dark period. From 1982-2011, the Terps posted just four winning seasons and one .500 record. Maryland endured 32 straight losing seasons in the ACC, an ignominious streak that began in 1982 and didn't end until the 2014 Terps finished with a 15-14 record during their final season of league competition.
A Change In Leadership
Elton "Jack" Jackson, who guided the program for 30 seasons and led Maryland to three NCAA tournament appearances, left the program in 1990 after six consecutive losing seasons. Tom Bradley (1991-2000) and Terry Rupp (2001-09) tried valiantly to coach the Terps into consistent winners.
Following Rupp's departure, the Terps turned to a young Californian to resurrect the program. Erik Bakich was hired by Maryland in 2009 following seven seasons as an assistant with the highly successful Vanderbilt University program.
"Every coach is in the business of being a confidence builder," said Bakich, who was just 31 years old when he was hired by former Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow.
"During the first two years, the confidence came from their work ethic, preparation and having the right mentality."
But Bakich knew that if the program was going to make strides, it would have to improve its recruiting.
"The school is in a great recruiting area, especially from the Mid-Atlantic to New England," Bakich said. "We wanted kids who had the mindset of wanting to build something. We targeted players that wanted to be a part of the ‘first-evers.' Our staff played a huge role in our recruiting success. To get Bernie Walter as our director of operations helped us make an instant connection with the high school coaches in the state."
Although he stayed at Maryland for only three seasons before moving onto Michigan, Bakich left his imprint on the program.
"When Erik came in, that's when the program changed," said Walter, who served as the Terps' director of operations from 2010-12. "He was a terrific recruiter, and he started to get some of the elite players in the country. We started playing some big-time programs like UCLA and Texas and showed that we could compete on that level. ..."
Bakich's impact was also noticed at the professional level.
"Erik deserves some credit," said Dean Albany, the executive Mid-Atlantic scout for the Baltimore Orioles. "He instilled some discipline and brought in some really decent players."
Bakich's recruiting upgrade helped Maryland improve from a 17-39 record during his first season in 2010 to a 32-24 mark just two years later. It was Maryland's first winning season since the 2008 team went 30-26. But the Terps' rising fortunes weren't enough to keep Bakich, who left Maryland after the 2012 season to become the head coach of the Wolverines.
A New Challenge
With Bakich's departure, the Maryland program was suddenly in a difficult spot. The school needed to find a replacement who could continue the progress. On July 18, 2012, Maryland hired John Szefc as its new head coach.
Szefc accepted the Maryland position after two seasons as the associate head coach at Kansas State University. His only previous head coaching experience came at Marist College, a private school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., that competed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. During his run at Marist from 1996-2002, Szefc guided the Red Foxes to four NCAA tournament berths. After leaving Marist, the native of Middletown, N.Y., was the head assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette for six years. Szefc also served as the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of Kansas for two seasons from 2009-10 before leaving for Kansas State.
Photo Credit: Ed Sheahin/PressBox
After a decade as an assistant, Szefc returned to the head coaching ranks at Maryland.
"I was lucky enough to get several good assistant coaches that helped set the foundation in place," said Szefc, whose original staff of Jim Belanger, Rob Vaughn, Corey Haines and Matt Swope has remained together for four seasons. "There's a lot to say for experience and stability amongst coaches. That's helped us get good players here."
In addition to his extensive experience, Szefc also brought a change in style to the Maryland program.
"Erik was a California guy, with a certain amount of flair," said Walter, who coached Arundel High School to 10 state championships during 36 seasons from 1974-2009.
"John is a New York State guy who is more conservative. Bakich was looking for the ‘home run.' Szefc is straight old school."
The new coach looked for players who showed mental tenacity, as well as the physical skills.
"We want to see good athletic and academic habits," Szefc said. "If you don't have good students that are serious about school, whatever success you have will be short term because you'll have a lot of turnover. We determine whether their skills match up and how quickly they can make an impact. The intangible thing is the makeup part. Can a guy step into an adverse environment and operate, or does he have more of a passive personality where it's tougher for him to make an impact?"
Szefc took over a team that seemed ready to make a move up in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But those plans changed in a hurry. In November 2012, just four months after Szefc's hiring, Maryland administrators announced that the athletic program would leave the ACC and join the Big Ten. The move would take effect July 1, 2014.
The Next Step
While Szefc continued to raise Maryland's recruiting profile, he was fortunate to inherit a solid group of returning players. One of those holdovers was outfielder Anthony Papio.
Papio, a graduate of Montgomery County's Sherwood High School, decided to remain close to home and attempted to walk on to the Maryland baseball team. He didn't make an appearance during his 2012 freshman season, but he has been a valuable part of the Terps' emergence.
"Being a local guy, I was always a huge Maryland fan," said Papio, who started 119 of the Terps' 129 games during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. "I had a couple of options to play at other schools, but I decided to come here."
Photo Credit: Ed Sheahin/PressBox
During the 2013 season, Szefc put Papio in the starting lineup, where the now-senior outfielder has remained. The Terps posted a second straight winning season for the first time since 1980-81, finishing with a 30-25 record. Their 15-14 ACC mark ended a 32-year losing streak against league competition.
The Terps had made progress in the ACC, but they still hadn't qualified for the league tournament since the 2005 season. Led by a strong pitching staff and a versatile everyday lineup, the 2014 team made its way to the ACC tournament championship game before losing to Georgia Tech. The deep ACC run helped the Terps receive their first NCAA bid in 43 years.
"When I got here [in 2012], we were starting to get some talent in the program," Papio said. "I think it just took a couple of years for everybody to settle in and become more cohesive as a unit. We had some great team leaders to get us over the hump."
The Terps' emergence as a national contender was fueled by the leadership skills of several younger players, including catcher Kevin Martir, who was drafted by the Houston Astros in 2015.
"I came in with [infielder] Jose [Cuas], [pitcher Alex] Robinson, [pitcher Jake] Drossner and [infielder Brandon] Lowe," said Martir, who was the Terps' catcher for both NCAA Super Regional appearances. "We had a class with so much talent, and we were ready to compete as freshmen. But it's not all about talent. There are a lot of ups and downs, and Coach Szefc always stressed not to let the game run up on you."
Szefc's teams have been strong up the middle, especially on the pitcher's mound.
Shawaryn, a junior, is a perfect example of that strength.
Photo Credit: Ed Sheahin/PressBox
Following a distinguished high school career, Shawaryn could have joined the professional ranks. After helping Gloucester Catholic to four consecutive New Jersey nonpublic high school state titles, Shawaryn was drafted by the Kansas City Royals during the 32nd round of the 2013 MLB Draft.
The 6-foot-3 right-hander didn't sign with the Royals. Shawaryn also didn't commit to the established college baseball powers that were pursuing him, including Vanderbilt, LSU and Miami. Instead, he chose to attend Maryland.
"For me, the biggest thing was that it felt like home," said Shawaryn, who earned freshman All-American honors during the 2014 campaign and became the first Maryland player since 1979 to suit up for USA Baseball last summer. "I liked the atmosphere, and I loved the plan that Szefc had. Belanger (the Terps' pitching coach) prepares us the best way that I could ever imagine. I had no regrets my freshman year, and I sure don't have any now."
With Shawaryn in the starting rotation, the Terps took another step. The native of Carneys Point, N.J., earned Freshman All-American honors during the 2014 campaign after leading the ACC with 11 wins. Shawaryn was even better during his sophomore campaign, setting the school single-season records for victories (13) and strikeouts (138). After just two seasons at Maryland, Shawaryn was the winningest pitcher in school history with 24 victories.
The upward movement of the Maryland baseball program also caught the attention of Kevin Smith. The native of East Greenbush, N.Y., came to Maryland prior to the 2015 season and earned the Terps' starting shortstop spot immediately. After batting .273 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs, Smith became the Terps' third Freshman All-American in two seasons, joining 2014 picks Shawaryn and Lowe.
"Coach Szefc was very positive," Smith said. "When he recruited me, he asked if I wanted to be the start of something great. When I got here, the team had already played in a regional. We had a lot of guys who had experienced what it took to play at that level, which really helped my whole class [of freshmen]."
Papio, Shawaryn and Smith might have to raise their games even more during the current campaign. That's what happens when eight of your 2015 teammates are chosen in the MLB Draft.
Going, Going, Gone
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It's not unusual for major league scouts to visit Maryland's Bob "Turtle" Smith Stadium. Following consecutive NCAA Super Regional appearances, the Terps' program is on the baseball map again.
The recent success has also brought a significant restructuring of the team's roster. Four Maryland players were taken in the 2014 MLB Draft, led by pitcher Jake Stinnett's second-round selection by the Chicago Cubs. One year later, a school-record eight Terps were selected in the 2015 draft. Lowe, the Terps' second baseman, was the first Maryland player drafted, going to the Tampa Bay Rays during the third round. Robinson, a left-handed pitcher, and center fielder LaMonte Wade were selected by the Minnesota Twins during the fifth and ninth rounds, respectively.
Drossner, a left-handed hurler (10th round), and third baseman Cuas (11th round) went to the Milwaukee Brewers. Reliever Kevin Mooney (15th round, Washington Nationals), catcher Martir (18th round, Houston Astros) and pitcher Zach Morris (24th round, Philadelphia Phillies) completed the largest draft class in Maryland's history.
Suddenly, the Terps were forced to replace several players who were major contributors to their consecutive NCAA tournament teams. But Szefc wasn't surprised on draft day.
"We saw it coming," Szefc said. "Frankly, I thought we'd lose 10 guys in the draft. But we had a pretty detailed plan behind the whole thing.
"You have to get the right guys in and keep them for as long as you can before you're going to lose them. We accept the fact that we'll have a guy for only three years before he signs."
Despite the loss of so many key players, the expectations haven't changed in College Park, Md.
"I wouldn't say that this is a rebuilding year at all," shortstop Smith said. "We still want to make the tournament and go deep and get to the College World Series. I don't think that anyone is looking at this year as if it will be fine to go .500. We don't want to take a step back."
If You Rebuild It…
The next step forward for the Maryland program is an improved facility. Bob "Turtle" Smith Stadium stands in the heart of Maryland's 1,250-acre College Park campus. With a prime location near Maryland Stadium and the old Cole Field House, the 2,500-seat structure boasts tall white columns at its entrance. But the "front door" doesn't necessarily reflect the rest of the house.
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"If you're talking about being a top-level program, the stadium needs to be updated," director of operations Walter said. "It's a 1950s model that has been piecemealed. The field has been improved, but the lights are old, the bathrooms are totally inadequate and [the spectators] sit on benches."
The stadium, which was built in 1952, is getting a significant facelift. The field is covered with a new artificial playing surface. A new outfield fence and foul poles, an enclosed home-team bullpen and a new drainage system have also been added. Those changes represented the first phase of the stadium's planned renovations.
The second phase features improvements to the indoor hitting-pitching facility, which will be expanded to 7,500 square feet. The final, and costliest, phase is a replacement of the stadium bowl.
"It's completely outdated, as far as press box, bathrooms, seating, just the fan experience, in general," said Szefc, who signed a five-year contract extension following the 2015 season. "Our administration knows that, and they've been great as far as moving along with the plan. But if we're going to host an NCAA Regional or Super Regional, we'll need to have a facility that warrants it."
Looking to the Future
The flow of Maryland players to the pros is expected to continue. Shawaryn could join such special Maryland hurlers as his 2014 teammate, Stinnett; current Toronto Blue Jays' reliever Brett Cecil, and former major leaguer Eric Milton -- who was the highest Terp pitcher ever selected when he was chosen by the New York Yankees with the 20th overall pick in 1996 -- in the professional ranks.
But the Terps' program will likely withstand the exodus of any players on its current or future rosters.
"I don't think that there is going to be any more rebuilding at Maryland," Albany said. "They do a great job of recruiting nationally now, and the best players in the state of Maryland are also going there. It's now a program that has a chance to make it to Omaha (site of the College World Series)."
The Maryland program is receiving respect from other collegiate administrators.
"What has been achieved is special, and I hope it continues," Yow, the current North Carolina State athletic director who held the same position at Maryland from 1994-2010, wrote in an email. "Congratulations to AD [Kevin] Anderson and the coaching staff for doing a stellar job of advancing the baseball program."
The Terps' success has also instilled a sense of pride in the program's alums, especially those who were part of the consecutive NCAA tournament runs.
"I'm from New York, and I've been approached by a number of players there who said, ‘How can I get to Maryland?'" Martir said. "I think Maryland baseball will keep building on the respect that they have now."
Issue 219: March 2016