Playing for the Maryland baseball team has always had a special meaning for LaMonte Wade. When he was still at St. Paul's in Brooklandville, the Owings Mills native said in a video at a showcase tryout that the highlight of his baseball career wasn't an on-field moment, but when he committed to play for the Terps as a member of their 2013 class.
As Maryland enjoys the best season in school history, Wade has plenty of candidates to replace that highlight. The Terps finished second in the first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament they have qualified for in nine years. Then last weekend, they swept the first round of the NCAA tournament in Columbia, S.C. They've collected a school-record 39 wins, and earned a berth in the best-of-three NCAA super regional this weekend against ACC rival No. 3 Virginia.
"If I had to change it, I guess going now to the super regional would be the greatest moment," Wade said Tuesday in College Park, a day after Maryland returned from Columbia. "It's been a fun ride. We know the ride isn't over, but up to this point it's been really great. The guys are working hard, the coaching staff has been great, and we're looking forward to this week."
Maryland coach John Szefc said Wade is "a big part of what we're doing," even if Wade isn't in the role he was brought in to play.
Wade was recruited as an outfielder out of St. Paul's but has had to draw on his limited high school experience at first base to fill a need for the Terps.
"He's played every day since the minute he walked in the door, mainly because we didn't really have another guy at that position that he could play behind," Szefc said. "It was like, 'Here it is, go out there and figure it out.'"
Wade didn't let Szefc down.
"When I first started last year playing first, it was definitely an adjustment," Wade said. "I didn't plan on coming in and playing first every day, but that's where Coach Szefc needed me, and I gladly did it. I'm still gladly doing it."
Wade's high school coach, Patrick Walsh, had to briefly move the left-handed Wade to first at St. Paul's as well.
"Although he's always been an outfielder, he's such a natural and such an athlete that nothing gets by him from the infielders," Walsh said. "That's why Maryland has him there. … It shows [Wade's] willingness to do what's in the best interest of the team."
Szefc said Wade doesn't fit the physical prototype of a "big strapping monster" who mans first, but he is "one of the best defensive first basemen I've ever been around at the college level."
"When you watch him around the bag, he makes all the infielders better by what he can do defensively," Szefc said.
"If he had a little more time to have been seasoned behind a guy, you might see a guy who's a little further along [offensively]. That's one side of the argument. The other side is he has gotten probably 450 at-bats in his college career. I think his strike zone discipline has gotten better, his two-strike approach has gotten better. He's just gotten better in every phase."
Wade is batting .255 with 12 doubles and 25 RBIs in 59 games this season. As a freshman last year, he started all 55 games as Maryland's primary first baseman, hitting .260 with 18 extra-base hits and a team-leading 35 RBIs.
He has provided timely hits at each stage of the postseason this year. Wade hit a pair of home runs — including the eventual game winner — in Maryland's 7-6 win over Virginia to open pool play in the ACC tournament, and he drove in a run in each of Maryland's three wins in the Columbia regional last weekend.
Wade was selected to the All-ACC tournament team and later earned All-Regional team honors last weekend in the Columbia regional, where the Terps beat hosts and traditional powerhouse South Carolina twice to advance to the super regional. He helped spark Maryland's rally in their opening-round win over Old Dominion with a leadoff eighth-inning single, and a walk to load the bases in a three-run ninth.
Wade is one of 13 Maryland natives on the team, part of a push by Szefc and his predecessor, Erik Bakich, to keep in-state talent at Maryland. Wade's brother, Jamal, will join him on the Maryland squad next year. Walsh said the proximity to home was a big part of Wade choosing the Terps.
Wade said he and his Maryland teammates, have thrived in the big moments this season, though they lack experience in them.
"When the money is on the table and we're in a big situation, that's a spot everybody wants to play in and everybody wants to thrive in," Wade said. "That's what I came to Maryland for. That's what everybody else came to Maryland for: playing in South Carolina, playing in the ACC tournament, playing in the super regional. That's all things we dreamed of doing. When the situation comes and our name is called, that's the situation we want to be in. We don't want to shy away from it. We look forward to those moments, and that's when we need to execute."