On Monday, three months into the dream season that has given his Maryland baseball program a championship dogpile, a rewritten record book and the promise of more, Rob Vaughn looked out at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium and could see the future.
On the left field wall was a row of panels where the program’s Big Ten Conference regular-season title, its first league crown in 51 years, would be honored in school colors: “B1G CHAMPIONS 2022.” Beyond that, newly installed between the scoreboard in left-center field and the batter’s eye in center field, were portable bleachers rented for a potential record crowd. Around the fifth-year coach was a ballpark in transition, a program in ascendance, a fantasy being made real: This was the kind of place that could finally host an NCAA Tournament regional.
“Man, this looks like something we need to just keep here for a while,” Vaughn, in a phone interview Tuesday, recalled telling a Maryland official. “It looks good. No, it looks awesome.”
As the top-seeded Terps (45-10) battle for a Big Ten Tournament title this weekend in Omaha, Nebraska, there is optimism around the team that a historic homecoming could be next. Maryland, ranked fourth nationally in the rating percentage index and 10th nationally by D1Baseball.com, is expected Sunday to be named one of the NCAA Tournament’s 16 regional hosts for the first time in program history. The rest of the 68-team field will be unveiled Monday, and regional play begins next Friday, four teams competing in a double-elimination tournament.
The path to big-time baseball has not been straightforward. With Maryland rolling to a program-record 44 regular-season wins this spring, school officials began working to convince the NCAA of College Park’s own tournament-readiness. Their job has been to dream up and deliver a regional worthy of the Terps’ season. Over conversations with Vaughn and tournament officials, Maryland has re-imagined what the 68-year-old Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium could look like next week — and perhaps in the not-too-distant future.
“I think Coach Vaughn said it best,” said team supervisor Josh Kaplan, who also oversees facilities and operations for Maryland’s athletic department. “It’s not going to be pretty, but nothing we ever do is.”
A ‘special’ season
In an era of unprecedented success — a regional would mark the Terps’ fifth appearance in the past eight NCAA Tournaments, and just their eighth tournament bid in program history — Maryland is still trying to catch up. Former coach Erik Bakich left for Michigan in 2012, after just three seasons in College Park. John Szefc, who led the Terps to their first-ever super-regional appearances, was hired away by Virginia Tech in 2017. Both programs offered higher salaries, newer facilities, a better stadium.
Vaughn, an assistant under Szefc, was named his successor at age 29, the youngest head coach of any Power Five conference school. This season, Vaughn’s Terps have done what his predecessors only ever dreamed of, turning their ballpark, nestled in the middle of campus, into a weekend destination, a launch pad, a near-unbeatable fortress.
Maryland is 24-2 at home, with just one loss since early April. On April 30, the day after starting pitcher Ryan Ramsey threw a nine-inning perfect game against Northwestern, an announced 2,576 came out to watch the Terps, the most in 30 years. In its regular-season home finale, a 12-2 win over James Madison, Maryland homered five times. After more fireworks last weekend against Purdue, where players dogpiled after an additional six long balls and a title-clinching blowout win, the Terps trailed only College World Series favorite Tennessee in total home runs (121, another program record).
Mark Ciardi, a former Maryland and major league pitcher who now works as a film producer, recalled asking the team’s coaches about their expectations for this year, after making the NCAA Tournament last season. “‘This could be really special,’” they told Ciardi. “‘And it could be one of our best teams ever.’ And I was like, ‘Really?’ And man, they delivered.”
Two months ago, after a strong start in nonconference play had the Terps in early-season NCAA Tournament projections, Maryland officials began looking into a potential hosting bid. Operationally, Vaughn said, local minor league ballparks were more regional-ready. But availability was an issue. The Major League Baseball Draft League Frederick Keys and High-A Aberdeen IronBirds had home games scheduled for the first weekend of June. The Double-A Bowie Baysox didn’t, but Nitro Circus’ extreme-sports show was coming to Prince George’s Stadium.
About a month before the NCAA’s application deadline, the Terps circled back to College Park. In 2021, Old Dominion’s insufficient facilities had forced it onto the road as a regional host. Why not try to accommodate “The Bob” at home? “It wasn’t a hard right,” Kaplan said. “It was a slight pivot, just to be able to say, ‘Let’s do everything we can to give them that opportunity.’”
“You look at what we’ve done at home — it’s where we practice every day, it’s where we play every day,” Vaughn said. “We know the nooks and crannies better than anybody. We know how the field plays and how the turf plays. And you kind of lose some of that [playing away from College Park]. You know, it’s great that you have a home crowd. But you lose your advantage of the field when you have to go on the road. And so I think that’s huge.”
Maryland has hosted NCAA Tournament and championship events in other sports, but never baseball. The NCAA’s 98-page manual for host operations offered athletic director Damon Evans and other officials a blueprint.
Prospective host schools were first required to guarantee at least a $50,000 return from their regional and at least $35,000 from their super regional. That was not a problem, Kaplan said. “If the requirements are financially ‘X’ to submit a bid, our administration was [saying], ‘Let’s submit a bid.’ There was no waver. There was no thought process, no hemming and hawing associated with, ‘We have to pay X to the NCAA.’”
Maryland’s ballpark, however, needed a glow-up. A sports lighting company determined that the venue’s suboptimal foot-candle readings — a measurement of light considered for TV broadcasts — could be improved with two additional fixtures. Kaplan said they’d be installed once Maryland is confirmed as a regional host.
With the Terps’ cozy press box reserved for game operations and ESPN’s broadcast booth, Maryland plans to set up a tented area for other media along the right field line. (Along the left field line, the concession stand known as the Third-Base Grill, in accordance with the school’s policy for NCAA events, would not sell alcohol, as it does during the regular season.)
Small changes elsewhere are planned: bringing in portable bathrooms, laying lines to connect broadcast feeds to the video review, preparing facilities near the ballpark to serve as clubhouses for opposing teams and umpires. “When the announcement is made,” Kaplan said, “the expectation is that you plug in and you’re ready to go.”
The portable bleachers added to left field boost Maryland’s seating capacity to about 3,000, according to Kaplan — still well shy of the college baseball cathedrals in the Southeastern Conference, but enough to help create “an environment that I haven’t seen there before,” senior center fielder and Big Ten Player of the Year Chris “Bubba” Alleyne said.
“Hosting a regional in College Park will change the program forever. Period. Exclamation point,” said Robert Galligan, a reliever on the Terps’ super-regional teams in 2014 and 2015. “Hands down the most important, monumental thing that has ever happened to the program, forever. And it will change the trajectory and it will change the road map and it will change everything about the program for a very, very, very long time to come.”
Galligan recalled the 2015 team flying back from Los Angeles after upsetting the No. 1 national seed, UCLA. On the other side of the super-regional bracket was another victorious No. 3 seed, Virginia. And now, on the other side of Maryland’s flight back home, were those very Cavaliers, who a year earlier had knocked out the visiting Terps in their super regional.
Maryland players were by then resigned to returning to Charlottesville, Galligan said; they knew College Park wasn’t considered a suitable host. Virginia’s Davenport Field was just 13 years old, with luxury boxes and double Maryland’s capacity. The Cavaliers had the financial backing of bestselling author John Grisham, believed to be the driving force behind the stadium’s construction. The Terps? They didn’t even have a permanent indoor hitting facility, nor do they today.
“We were always the underdog,” Galligan said. In 2014, Maryland had ended South Carolina’s 28-game home postseason winning streak and become just the second team in 15 tries to win a regional on the Gamecocks’ home field. A year later, the Terps stunned the host Bruins before running once more into the Cavaliers, the eventual national champions. In 2017, they headed to Wake Forest. Last season, they ended up at East Carolina.
The next two weeks could look very different. If Maryland earns a top-eight national seed, a regional win in College Park would secure hosting duties in the super regional. “If you can host a regional,” Kaplan said, “you can host a super regional.” A triumph in the best-of-three weekend series would send the Terps to the eight-team College World Series.
“A sea of red,” Galligan said, imagining the atmosphere in College Park. “I mean, if I was a player or I was a coach and I’m looking back, you can say, ‘Those are my colors, and they’re here for us. And it’s not the South Carolina red. And it’s not the UVA orange and blue.’”
“Winning changes a lot of things, you know?” said Ciardi, who serves on the university’s board of trustees. “It just gets everybody really excited. It’s been a long road to get to this. And to be able to host a regional is just a massive accomplishment. Bringing people back to campus and having something there is just something that — it’s like a dream come true to think about as a supporter and a former player. Again, it’s what you dream about from the time you start in college.”
Even with the spring semester over, the buzz in College Park is building. Alleyne said his Terps teammates all have “at least” 10 to 15 friends or family members planning on making the regional. Galligan’s list of friends interested in meeting up beforehand has become worryingly long. A former player called Kaplan after the Terps’ regular-season finale, telling him his team’s entire graduating class was planning on tailgating and watching from the outfield. Ciardi’s already booked his flight from Los Angeles.
“I think College Park could turn upside down for a weekend,” Vaughn joked. At Kansas State, he was a starter on the program’s first NCAA Tournament team. Those 2009 Wildcats, ranked in the top 20 at season’s end, were sent to Rice for their regional, where they came within a win of knocking off the Anthony Rendon-led Owls.
Vaughn joined Kansas State’s coaching staff two years later, and the Wildcats made their third straight tournament appearance that season. Two years later, after Vaughn followed Szefc to Maryland, they won their first Big 12 Conference regular-season title. Construction on Kansas State’s stadium renewed in 2019: a padded outfield wall, a new infield and warning track, refurbished dugouts, LED stadium lighting. Then came upgrades to the seating bowl, press box, suites and clubhouse areas.
In College Park, capital improvements can take years to fund, if they’re funded at all. Vaughn is undeterred. He said he sees Maryland not as a “brick in the wall” blue blood but as a program being built “from the ground floor,” one season’s successes laying the foundation for the next. He likes to tell recruits, “Building tradition’s more rewarding than simply having one.” In a season full of firsts, it’s Vaughn’s hope — his belief — that this team’s breakthrough will be made to last.
“If you don’t have support from your administration, it’s really hard to be elite and to continue to be elite,” Vaughn said. “You can have spurts of it here and there. And by doing what they’re doing, Damon is signaling to me as well as everybody in the country, ‘We care about being good at baseball here at Maryland.’ And I tell you what, that’s a pretty good feeling.”
NCAA Baseball Tournament Selection Show
Regionals: Friday, June 3 through Monday, June 6
Super Regionals: Friday, June 10 through Monday, June 13
First day of College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska: Friday, June 17
CWS Finals: Start Saturday, June 25 (best of 3)