Chris Alleyne did not need much time to consider the turning point for the Maryland baseball team’s 2021 season.
Shortly after the team went 1-3 in a four-game series against Iowa and Ohio State on March 27-29 to open the campaign with a 6-9 record, senior right fielder-designated hitter and captain Randy Bednar organized a players meeting.
“The message was, ‘This is my last year playing baseball along with some of the other seniors, and we want to go out on our own terms, giving it everything that we have — whether that’s winning or losing,’” recalled Alleyne, a senior center fielder. “We just felt like not everyone was giving it everything that they had. His message was, he was trying to get everything from everyone at all times, and I feel like that was a huge turning point for us because looking at a guy like Randy Bednar who has poured his heart and soul into this program, it’s hard to look at him playing as hard as he is every game and not do the same. So I think once he gave that speech there, he kind of fired us up and got us ready to go for the rest of the year.”
Since Bednar’s comments, the Terps have won 22 of 29 games to amass a 28-16 record, which persuaded the NCAA selection committee to award them the No. 3 seed in the Greenville Regional and an opening game against No. 2 seed Charlotte (39-19) on Friday at 6 p.m. at East Carolina’s Clark-LeClair Stadium. The Pirates (41-15), the top seed in the regional and the overall No. 13 seed in the tournament, will meet No. 4 seed Norfolk State (25-26) at noon.
Despite finishing second to Nebraska (31-12) in the Big Ten for its best finish in school history, Maryland could not feel entirely assured it would get its first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2017 until the players saw their name on the bracket that was unveiled Monday.
“We’re soaking in the moment and trying to live where our feet are,” junior shortstop Benjamin Cowles said. “We’re just enjoying the moment. It’s awesome to be here.”
Said coach Rob Vaughn: “It was such a joy to just be able to sit in the back and watch the reaction from guys like [senior third baseman] Austin Chavis, [senior second baseman] Tommy Gardiner, Chris Alleyne, Randy Bednar, guys that have been here and have poured their hearts and souls into this program — some of which have made big impacts on the field and some of which haven’t done a ton on the field but are instrumental in us getting here. What a joy that was to see. We had a pretty good idea our name was going to be called, but that doesn’t ever get old.”
Of the 35 players on the team, only graduate student left-handed pitcher Tyler Blohm, a Millersville resident and Archbishop Spalding graduate, and graduate student right-handed pitcher Elliot Zoellner, an Annapolis resident and St. Mary’s graduate, have postseason experience as members of that 2017 squad.
Vaughn acknowledged the lack of experience, but pointed out that the 2014 team overcame a 43-year absence from the NCAA tournament to stop South Carolina’s 28-game postseason home winning streak and then upset the Gamecocks again to advance to the program’s first Super Regional in school history.
“The reality is, this team has been slugged in the mouth all year long from injuries to sicknesses to COVID-related stuff to everything, and all they’ve done is ring the bell and answer the call,” he said. “So it’s another opportunity in front of us. Clearly, this team thrives when their backs are against the wall. They seem to thrive when somebody tells them they can’t do something. So yeah, it’s an advantage for them, but our plan is that this becomes a regular thing for Maryland baseball. This is where Maryland baseball belongs. We are in a place where we should be in the NCAA tournament year in and year out. My goal as the head coach in the next couple years is to put us in the driver’s seat.”
The Terps will tangle with a Charlotte squad that is back in the postseason for the first time since 2011 despite losing both of its games in the Conference USA tournament. An offense that is tied for 22nd in Division I in total runs with 398 is headed by sophomore third baseman Austin Knight, a Tennessee transfer who leads the nation in doubles with 29 while batting .351 and hitting 10 home runs.
Maryland will counter by leaning on Cowles, a Big Ten first-team selection who led the conference in home runs with 17 and ranked second in RBIs with 49; freshman third baseman Matthew Shaw, who was tied for second in the league in doubles with 15 and ranked eighth in batting average at .335; and Alleyne, who led the Big Ten in runs scored with 47 and was tied for the conference lead in triples with four. The team will give the ball to freshman right-handed pitcher Jason Savacool, who leads the team in starts with 13 and wins with seven and ranks second in strikeouts with 50 while sporting a 5.25 ERA.
“He’s a winner,” said Vaughn, who added that sophomore right-handed pitcher Nick Dean will be unavailable due to a wrist injury. “The moment is not going to get too big for him. He’s not going to bow away from it. I think he’s a good matchup for this lineup. He can really sink the baseball. He can really slide the baseball the other way.”
Vaughn said the current group of Terps refuse to view themselves as underdogs, and Cowles echoed that sentiment.
“We’re always a confident team,” he said. “We’ve been winning lately, but I think that’s just because of our preparation. I think we can hang with anybody.”
Maryland has not advanced to a Super Regional since 2015, but Alleyne said the team is driven by a desire to spend more time together.
“We don’t want the last day to come,” he said. “I think we just approach every day with that mindset. It’s hard to go out there and not give it your all when you approach the game like that. So I think everyone’s just kind of adopted that mindset to keep moving forward as a group. So I think that mindset is going to be huge going forward with the lack of experience that we have.”
No. 3 seed Maryland vs. No. 2 seed Charlotte
Friday, 6 p.m.
East Carolina’s Clark-LeClair Stadium, Greenville, North Carolina