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Return To NCAAs Helps Terps Baseball Cement Place On National Scene

June 12, 2017
The Maryland baseball team landed on the right side of the NCAA bubble this time.

After falling just short last spring, the Terps earned their third national tournament berth in four years.

Their season ended with two losses to West Virginia at the Winston-Salem Regional sandwiched around a rout of UMBC. They finished 38-23, closing with an 8-5 loss to the Mountaineers June 4.

In again reaching the game's biggest stage, Maryland further solidified its newfound place on the national scene. It's been quite the rise for a program that went four decades without an NCAA appearance prior to 2014.

"We try to preach consistency and coach consistency," head coach John Szefc told reporters after the season-ending loss. "And I think our guys are very good in that respect."

Szefc, who announced June 9 that he is leaving Maryland after five seasons to become the head coach at Virginia Tech in 2018, adjusted his approach after last season's early ending. He worried his players let the weight of growing expectations drag them down. 

After consulting with a sport psychologist during the offseason, Szefc wanted a veteran group to be looser this spring, especially since the Terps were again tabbed as the Big 10 favorite by most major outlets.

The results showed up on the field. The Terps held their own through a difficult nonconference schedule, including a 9-2 victory against then-No. 6 N.C. State March 4. They carried the good feelings over to Big 10 play and surged to the top of the standings.

Maryland relied on a time-tested formula in its impressive early season run. Starters Brian Shaffer (North Harford), Taylor Bloom (Riverdale Baptist) and Tyler Blohm (Archbishop Spalding) recorded one quality outing after another, putting a bullpen anchored by Ryan Selmer (Riverdale Baptist) and John Murphy in favorable spots.

An experienced lineup featured a good mix of power and speed. Right fielder Marty Costes (Archbishop Curley) and shortstop Kevin Smith hit 13 home runs apiece, and five Terps stole at least 13 bases.

With a home series sweep of Michigan State April 23, Maryland improved to 28-11 overall and 12-3 in the Big 10. They had a spot in the Baseball America and D1Baseball national rankings by then.

The road to the finish proved rocky, though. Maryland dropped its last four weekend series and backed into the Big 10 Tournament as the No. 4 seed. The pitching wasn't as sharp, and the hitters couldn't do enough to bail them out.

Those late-season issues pushed the Terps to the edge of the projected NCAA field. A loss to Iowa to start the conference tournament at Indiana's Kaufman Field May 25 provided another blow to their resume. They seemed to be in trouble locked in a tight elimination game with Purdue later in the day.

Szefc, intentionally or not, provided the spark. The veteran coach raced onto the field to protest in the eighth inning when Costes was ordered to stay in the box after getting hit by a pitch. The home plate umpire ruled Costes hadn't done enough to get out of the way.

Szefc was ejected after a passionate rant that quickly spread around the internet, but his team responded with three runs to grab a 5-2 win. It added two more victories, including one against regular-season champion Nebraska, to strengthen its case for an NCAA at-large bid before bowing out.

Maryland was no shoo-in to continue its season, but good news arrived via the NCAA Selection Show May 29. The Terps -- thanks to an RPI of 34 -- were slotted as the No. 3 seed in the regional hosted by Wake Forest.

Maryland won its first two regionals under Szefc but couldn't duplicate its magic from postseasons past. West Virginia jumped on ace Shaffer early and erupted for six home runs to deal the Terps a 9-1 loss in the opener.

The Mountaineers needed a comeback two days later to eliminate Maryland. After routing UMBC, 16-2, the Terps led West Virginia 4-0 into the sixth inning before the bullpen allowed eight runs. The Terps brought the tying run to the plate in their final chance but couldn't get the offense needed to extend the season.

"Their lineup is probably as good as we've seen," Szefc said of West Virginia. "They really make your staff work for 27 outs. And that's obviously what they did."

The quick and quiet exit left Maryland to balance the pride of its NCAA return with thoughts of what might have been. They were 10-12 down the stretch with five one-run defeats. 

The host Demon Deacons ended up advancing to a Super Regional opposite Florida.

"Obviously, it didn't end the way we wanted, but the reason I wanted to come here was to go to a regional," said senior infielder Brandon Gum, who led the team with a .338 average after joining it as a graduate transfer from George Mason.

Going forward, Maryland will have some adjusting to do. In addition to having a new head coach, seven of the 10 position players who started at the regional and seven of the 10 pitchers who saw action there are eligible for the upcoming MLB Draft.

Smith and Shaffer -- both juniors -- are expected to go in the top five rounds and will likely sign pro contracts, and the Terps could also lose Costes, who is eligible as a sophomore because of his age and coveted because of his bat.

Many of the veterans set to depart had a major hand in the breakthrough under Szefc, including the five seniors who saw action on the 2014 club that made the program's first NCAA appearance since 1971. The challenge now is building on that momentum with a new cast under a new head coach to keep the Terps relevant nationally.

"I know our coaching staff will walk away from this thing feeling pretty positive about where things are [and] where they're going," Szefc said. "And feel good about the guys that are leaving the program as far as the careers that they've had and the experiences that they've had."