Terps baseball rolls into NCAA tourney on the back of Mike Shawaryn, their 'unicorn'

Mike Shawaryn was a star high school pitcher and coveted recruit when he committed to then-doormat Maryland.

The story of Mike Shawaryn's decision to call Jimmy Belanger and commit to the Maryland baseball program is a pretty good one, but what makes it the greatest story of all time is a unicorn.

In March 2013, Shawaryn, then a star senior right-hander at Gloucester Catholic (N.J.), was still undecided on where he would play in college. The Terps wanted him. Belanger, the team's pitching coach, had driven up to Gloucester City from College Park on days when Shawaryn wasn't pitching, just to be seen. Every visit might matter; Vanderbilt wanted him, too.

One day that month, Shawaryn woke up with a feeling. He called high school coach Mike Rucci and told him he had made up his mind: Maryland. Shawaryn called Belanger, who later texted Rucci: "Dude, this is awesome," he wrote, Rucci recalled. "We got the 'Unicorn.'"

The next day, a printout of a unicorn with the word "Captured" written across it lay on Belanger's desk, "which I think is the greatest story of all time," Rucci said, laughing. "And now [Shawaryn's] the Unicorn. It's amazing, and hopefully, that sticks with him."

On Tuesday, a day before the Terps (39-21) would fly to California for the Los Angeles regional of the NCAA Division I tournament, Shawaryn wore sports goggles and a baseball cap atop his powerfully built 6-foot-3 frame, but they did not appear to cover a horn protruding from his forehead. His hair was close cropped and mahogany, not billowing and milk-white. Shawaryn was, in other words, mortal, not mythological, even if his two years at Maryland have coincided with the emergence of a program whose aspirations had, for decades, seemed Sisyphean.

"I didn't really choose it," Shawaryn, who is expected to start for the third-seeded Terps against second-seeded Ole Miss (30-26) on Friday night, said sheepishly of his nickname. "It was kind of brought upon."

His numbers for a onetime doormat program do seem unreal, as if born from the same imagination that would conceive of a horned horse.

In his college debut, Shawaryn (pronounced Shuh-WAR-in) carried a shutout into the sixth inning of an eventual 9-7 win at No. 21 Florida. In the fourth start of his college career, a 5-1 victory at No. 2 Florida State, he did not allow a runner past second base until the seventh inning.

He set the single-season program record for wins a month before the season ended. Then he won two more games. One came in the NCAA regionals at Carolina Stadium; it was South Carolina's first postseason loss at the 6-year-old ballpark. His 11 victories led the Atlantic Coast Conference and were tied for 13th nationally. He was only a freshman.

"When you're dealing with college athletes, you get a lot of ups and downs at times," said third-year Maryland coach John Szefc, who last season helmed the Terps' first 40-win team in program history and first NCAA tournament team since 1971. "And there's really not a lot of ups and downs with him. He's a very consistent guy."

Shawaryn spent the summer off the mound, getting bigger and better, as he put it. When he came back, he "was the same guy," said sophomore designated hitter Nick Cieri, Shawaryn's roommate and former American Legion Baseball teammate. "Actually," Cieri quickly corrected himself, "he's probably better."

After going 11-4 in 2014, Shawaryn's 12-2 in 2015. His ERA has been nearly halved, from 3.12 to 1.65. In 103 1/3 innings this season, 11 more than he pitched all last year, he has 52 more strikeouts (124) and one fewer walk (23).

And the Unicorn is getting stronger. A first-team All-Big Ten Conference selection and U.S. national team member, his low-90s fastball is more accurate, his slider more dependable, his changeup as effective as ever. After a seven-inning, six-strikeout, scoreless gem in a Feb. 20 win over South Alabama, Shawaryn texted Jake Stinnett. Humbly, he said he was trying to do what the former Maryland ace had done the year before; Stinnett, the No. 45 overall selection in last year's first-year player draft, told him to be "the best Mike Shawaryn you can be." At the moment, that means maybe the best pitcher in program history — he already has the Terps' record for career wins (23) — and a possible first-round selection in next year's draft.

"There's a lot to be said for a kid who goes out, takes the ball every fifth day, sixth day, and then once you give him the ball, you don't expect it back until after nine" innings, said former Orioles minor league pitcher and major league scout Steve Mondile Sr., who worked with Shawaryn on their American Legion team. "And it's going to be a W, more than likely."

That's what Belanger saw early in high school, too. Which was a shame, actually, because he couldn't reasonably expect to recruit Shawaryn to Monmouth, where Belanger coached until 2012. Go to Louisville, the former Cardinals right-hander told Shawaryn.

Then, three summers ago, former Maryland coach Erik Bakich left for Michigan, and Szefc, Kansas State's associate head coach, stepped in at College Park. He hired Belanger to his staff. Soon enough, Shawaryn had attained legendary status in the Terps' baseball office.

Every Monday staff meeting during Shawaryn's senior year, Szefc would review the team's prospective recruits. Every time, Belanger would tell him: He's close to committing, but not there yet. Wait until Halloween. Then Thanksgiving. Then Christmas.

"It became like a myth," Belanger said. "He became a mythical creature."

The recruitment itself was equally unbelievable. From fall 2012 to the following spring, when Shawaryn would win his fourth straight state title at Gloucester Catholic, the Terps sent about 200 handwritten letters, Belanger estimated. Each time Shawaryn opened his family's mailbox, Belanger wanted him to think of Maryland. It worked, of course.

"Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose," Belanger said. "And luckily with Mike, we won."

Legends can be awfully alluring. Two of the Terps' top incoming recruits are, like Shawaryn, "top flight" South Jersey pitchers, said Jheremy Brown, Northeast scout for scouting service Perfect Game. Another's coming the year after.

"Everything seems to be coming together now at College Park," Brown said.

On Tuesday, Shawaryn was asked what he thought about his nickname.

"Personally, I was like, 'It's just baseball,' " he said. "I'm not some unicorn."

For Maryland, however, he has been just as rare a find.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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No. 3 seed Maryland vs. No. 2 seed Mississippi

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