Progress extends beyond the field for Maryland baseball program on the rise

The Maryland baseball program has paired its success in the win column with an all-around face-lift.

On Monday at Bob "Turtle" Smith Stadium, it snowed a little and rained a lot. On Tuesday, the Maryland baseball team held an intrasquad scrimmage. This was very real progress.

In years past, before the Terps were back-to-back NCAA regional champions, before they had almost enough players drafted to fill a lineup, wintry precipitation might as well have been a bee infestation. They wouldn't dare play outside, not with the field a soggy mess, so to the indoor practice bubble they would go, a day out at their ballpark ruined.

On the list of things beyond Maryland coach John Szefc's control, Mother Nature is still unsurpassed. But the Terps are finding that with greater success, they can better prepare for that which they have little to no power over: the allure of big-money contracts in the pros; the invisible but inevitable grind of a long schedule; and, yes, the weather.

As star junior right-hander Mike Shawaryn talked Tuesday about the season ahead — the team, picked to finish second in the Big Ten Conference by the league's coaches, opens play Friday at Alabama — he stood on a field with a familiar look but unfamiliar qualities. There's the stadium's new artificial turf, yes, and enclosed home-team bullpen. But there's also the drainage system, for days just like Tuesday.

"I don't even know how many hours we spent having to rearrange plans, not being able to get out here" before this season, Shawaryn said. "But I know all those hours, whatever they are, they're not going to be in the future, and that's a cool thing to have."

They are material improvements befitting a Maryland program that perhaps has come further than any in college baseball over the past two years.

Entering the 2014 season, the Terps had last made the NCAA tournament in 1971. They rewrote their record books two springs ago — first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final appearance since 1976, first 40-win season in program history, first NCAA regional title in program history — only to need even more Wite-Out after last season's march: a program-record 42 wins, another super-regional appearance, a program-record eight players drafted.

Now they must reload with what Baseball America rated as its second straight top-25 recruiting class.

"Unfortunately, our facilities weren't even close to what they should be," said redshirt senior left-hander Robert Galligan, whose career in College Park will have spanned the last season of former coach Erik Bakich and all four under Szefc. "I think that it's also just winning. If we were losing, they wouldn't be dumping this money into the program. They just wouldn't be doing it."

Not all renovations are in plain view. In 2013, Szefc's first season, the team unveiled the Eric Milton Family Clubhouse, funded largely by the former Maryland and major league pitcher.

There in the Varsity Team House, the Terps' previous lockers, metal and "spray-painted" black, Galligan joked, were so uninviting that the coaches "wouldn't even take the recruits up." Now they're cherrywood, with modern carpeting and flooring.

Other amenities are small but significant. Had a brutal workout? There are state-of-the-art tubs in the training room.

Elbow feeling sore? Throw a NormaTec sleeve over your arm to accelerate the recovery time.

Need some technique talk? A Maryland coach can pull up your throwing form on an iPad, line it up next to that of a major leaguer and show just where your hip drive is falling short. A video room in the team house, opened last season, might as well be another classroom.

"Nothing was there before I got here," sophomore outfielder Jamal Wade (St. Paul's) said of the video room.

The stadium face-lift is, in some ways, an equal-opportunity boon. Until the offseason construction, a pipe ran under left field, where the playing surface, unlike the synthetic-turf infield, was still grass. This particular pipe ran hot, however — so hot that it would melt the grass sod and make life downright swampy for left fielder Tim Lewis and anyone else at the position.

Fenway Park has The Green Monster; Bob "Turtle" Smith Stadium had Lewis Lane.

"People would walk in here and just laugh at us," Galligan said.

There are changes still to come, and Szefc hopes to have the final two phases of the program's facility renovations finished over the next 2 1/2 years. First up is an improved hitting-pitching facility adjacent to the ballpark, with work set to begin this summer.

Next comes a more ambitious plan: a complete replacing of the stadium bowl that has stood since 1965.

"We're kind of happy where it is," Szefc said, "having the first phase pretty much completed."

Of all the work done since the Terps came within two wins of a June trip to the College World Series, Maryland's outfield wall perhaps best represents where the program stands. It is finished, and yet still a work in progress. The wall has a new batter's eye in center field and stands farther from home plate, with black-and-white images of the team's post-regional-title dogpiles covering two of the panels.

But there is ample space left for greater jubilation, for more history to be made and documented.

"If we make it to Omaha," Shawaryn said, "there'll be another dogpile up there."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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