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Maryland baseball strives to build on first NCAA tournament appearance in 43 years

Maryland's basbeall team made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 43 years in 2014. Now, John Szecf's Terps are ranked in the top 20 and hungry for more.

Normally, John Szefc asks his Maryland baseball players not to get caught up in celebration, to treat success as a natural byproduct of their preparations.

But this scene was too rich for a casual shrug, even from an all-business baseball lifer. Szefc's Terps held a 10-0 lead over South Carolina — college baseball royalty. And as it dawned on the Gamecocks' faithful that their team's season was about to end against a Maryland program that hadn't made the NCAA tournament in 43 years, they began filing quietly out of Carolina Stadium.

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Just that once, Szefc (pronounced CHEF) asked his players to step out of the dugout and take a gander at what they'd done.

"It was a mass exodus," recalled pitcher Mike Shawaryn, a freshman All-American at the time."It was almost movie-like. For two or three seconds, he wanted to let us know just how big this win was going to be. That was kind of the moment of changing pride in our organization."

And now? The Terps must forget so they can do it all over again.

Eight months later, the dynamic has flipped for Szefc's team. No longer will the Terps startle the big boys of college baseball with their no-frills style. Maryland is ranked as high as 13th in the country in one poll. After years as also-rans in the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference, the Terps enter their first Big Ten season as favorites to nab the conference title.

Embracing their new role as heavies, they began the season with three wins this past weekend in Myrtle Beach.

"We're not the hunters anymore. We're the hunted," said LaMonte Wade, a junior outfielder from Owings Mills. "The targets are on our backs, and we work with that in mind every day."

On a recent February afternoon, that meant shagging fly balls and tossing warm-up pitches as the temperature hovered near freezing.

The only hints of the spring to come were clanks from aluminum bats and the '80s stadium anthems — Fresh Prince, Aerosmith, Tone-Loc — blasting over the loudspeakers at Shipley Field.

No prolonged workouts in Florida for these guys. They've drilled in frigid temperatures since mid-January as they prepare to play in the Big Ten's northern outposts. Szefc joked that he's like his grandfather, an onion farmer, checking the weather every day to see if it's too harsh for his crop of young players.

They profess to love it, of course, as they grind ahead in hopes of going one step further in 2015, all the way to the College World Series.

"Just playing tough, being tough guys every day, that's what we're about," said junior catcher Kevin Martir, a boisterous native of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"Have you been to one of our scrimmages?" he continued. "It gets fiery, and we heckle each other. Everybody wants to fight when we're on the field, but then we get in the locker room, and everything's OK. That's how we like it."

The Terps lost their top table setter and base stealer, Charlie White, and their ace starter, Jake Stinnett, who was drafted in the second round by the Chicago Cubs.

But they're a veteran team led by a crew of junior starters and sophomores Shawaryn, who won 11 games last year, and Brandon Lowe, who led the team in batting and on-base percentage in 2014.

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That's why the Terps are ranked in the top 20 in three major preseason polls, a reality that was simply unfathomable for the better part of a half-century. A banner on the outfield wall at Shipley reminds the players last season's NCAA tournament trip was Maryland's first since 1971.

"Everybody wants to beat us this year," Martir said. "I love it."

Szefc is the man who sold them all on this vision of scrapping to the top, though even he didn't believe it would happen so quickly.

With his close-cropped hair and piercing eyes, he appears born to manage a baseball team, or perhaps command a combat platoon.

"He's the general," Shawaryn said. "He commands everything, does everything the right way."

Szefc isn't one to rant or holler, but he abhors wasting time. Follow his schedule, he tells players, and they'll accomplish in three hours what might take others six or seven.

"You don't have to read between the lines with him," Wade said. "He treats us like adults."

Though Wade, a St. Paul's product, and some other upperclassmen were recruited by Szefc's predecessor, Erik Bakich, they warmed to their new leader quickly when he took over in June 2012.

Szefc, a native of Middletown, N.Y., had built credibility as an assistant coach for winning programs at Louisiana-Lafayette, Kansas and Kansas State. But more than that, he described a simple vision for righting the program and sold it with conviction.

"He told us we were going to be the toughest team to beat," Martir said. "And I believed it right away."

Szefc brought with him a hyper-aggressive style of play — peck opponents to death on offense and keep them off the bases on defense.

Just as he never fell into dark rages when the team struggled, he refused to get too excited when the Terps began rolling late last season.

"You just don't blow guys up too much," he said, explaining his philosophy. "If a guy goes out there and has a good day, that's kind of what he's supposed to do. I try to keep the pats on the back to a minimum."

Which is what made that moment in South Carolina, when his team was about to advance to the NCAA super regional, all the more exceptional.

Szefc knew how far his group had come and how rarely a conquest crystallizes in such perfect fashion.

"For me , it was a really powerful moment for our program," he said. "You put a lot of time in to get things right."

The offseason further emphasized the new plateau Maryland baseball had reached. Recruits that used to list the Terps fifth and sixth on their lists suddenly wanted to come. The players sensed newfound respect from their peers on campus.

But in recent weeks, Szefc has happily reminded them none of it, and certainly no preseason ranking, amounts to a hill of beans.

The players seem to have embraced the message. Of the team's stars, Szefc noted Shawaryn is one of the most mature kids he's ever coached and Lowe is apt to go a whole day without saying more than two or three words.

"We don't have a lot of monstrous egos running around here," he said.

Shawaryn was recruited by traditional powerhouses such as Louisiana State and Miami (Fla.). He came to Maryland instead because he wanted the rarer feeling of "being the first."

The key, he said, is not behaving as if the quest ended last June on the field at South Carolina.

"It's all business," he said of the road ahead. "We have to make more memories."

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