After years of struggles, Maryland is back on the college baseball map
By By Trevor Hass
The Baltimore Sun|
May 29, 2014 at 5:50 PM
Maryland baseball coach John Szefc paused and looked forward, trying to articulate just how special it was to be part of the Terps' first NCAA tournament team in 43 years.
Szefc was just 4 years old when Maryland lost its first two games in Gastonia, N.C., in the 1971 national tourney.
"It's kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around that," Szefc said.
Since then, the program has endured 27 losing seasons in 43 years, failing to compete with perennial Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouses such as North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Florida State.
This year, though, the Big Ten-bound Terps swept N.C. State in March, took two of three from Georgia Tech in April and shocked Virginia and Florida State in the ACC tournament last week. Maryland (36-21, 15-14) finished with a winning record in the ACC for the first time since 1981 and has won more games overall than ever before. And after reeling off 11 wins in the past 13 games, the Terps earned the No. 2 seed in the Columbia, S.C., regional of the NCAA tournament.
They will face Old Dominion on Friday at 1 p.m. with hopes of capturing the program's first tournament win since 1970. One team emerges from the four-team, double-elimination regional, in which host South Carolina is the top seed.
"It's crazy," senior pitcher and Baltimore native Ben Brewster said. "It's just surreal, watching on TV every year, seeing these playoffs, and now to finally be a part of it."
The current crop of seniors — a group that finished 5-25 in conference play in 2011 — has helped catapult Maryland baseball back into the national landscape. With a revamped, business-like coaching staff in its second year, a mix of young and veteran talent, and a newfound swagger, the vision the players and coaches shared has become a reality.
"It's no longer a long shot or a hope," said Brewster, who starred at Park School. "This thing's actually happening. I'm ready to go do some damage in this tournament."
Elton "Jack" Jackson coached the Maryland baseball team from 1961 through 1990. He remembers struggling to lure top local talent to College Park.
It was a tough sell — a program with a track record of inconsistency in an unrelenting conference. The Terps made the NCAA tournament in 1965, 1970 and 1971 but couldn't transform their short-term triumphs into long-term results.
"At Maryland, you've got to be good enough to get a lot of the local kids," Jackson said. "The tough part is that everybody wants to go south."
In 1986, when Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, Jackson saw an effect on his baseball program. Some parents were unsure about the culture in College Park.
Jackson remembered one player in particular who was a top pitcher from Baltimore. The pitcher's plan was to come to Maryland, but the news of Bias' overdose made his family rethink the decision, and he chose to attend UMBC.
"The Len Bias thing really turned everything upside down," Jackson recalled. "From that point on, for a long period of time, we had a lot of trouble recruiting at the University of Maryland."
Since Jackson retired in 1990, four coaches have taken the reins at Maryland. Tom Bradley finished 243-306-4 (.442) in nine seasons. Terry Rupp was 227-271 (.456) in nine of his own. Erik Bakich started 38-74 (.339) in his first two years, Maryland's worst two seasons since 2001.
Bernie Walter, the legendary former Arundel High baseball coach who worked on Maryland's staff under both Bakich and Szefc, said there were 13 players on other ACC and Southeastern Conference schools from the state of Maryland in 2009. If the Terps had been able to land at least some of those top recruits, Walter suspects the team wouldn't have struggled as much.
"I think the key to improving your program is keeping the better players home," said Walter, who is now retired.
Eventually, Bakich started to glean some of that local talent, paving the way for Szefc (pronounced CHEF) to take over a deeper, more talented team when Bakich left for Michigan in 2012.
In Bakich's final season in College Park, the Terps won 32 games and were one of the final teams left out of the NCAA tournament.
The Terps didn't reach their ultimate goal — that year they wore caps with "Omaha," the location of the College World Series, written on the back — but suddenly the state of Maryland baseball was starting to look a little brighter.
'Get away from mediocrity'
The atmosphere was lively as Maryland finished its final practice Tuesday at Shipley Field before heading to South Carolina on Wednesday. Players cheered as 6-foot-8 pitcher Ryan Selmer fell on his back but still threw a runner out at first during a drill. Senior shortstop Blake Schmit playfully gestured toward his teammates as they distracted him from the dugout. Those same dugout dwellers urged a cycle of players filling in as third-base coach to use enthusiasm as they waved runners around to score.
But practice never got more animated than that. That's partially because the team is focused on making sure its season continues as long as possible, but it's also because Szefc was watching like a hawk the entire time.
The stone-faced, stocky coach stood with his arms crossed by third base, monitoring his players as they breezed through drill after drill in the 88-degree heat. Szefc didn't say much. He didn't have to. His presence was felt.
"I'm going to be honest," junior right-hander Bobby Ruse (C. Milton Wright) said as a smile formed underneath his bushy mustache. "The first time I met Coach Szefc, it was a little bit intimidating."
Every once in a while throughout the practice, Szefc offered his two cents. He commended one player for handling a ground ball a certain way. He bashed another for not sliding into home plate. He only swore once, and never raised his voice except to shout out instructions.
Szefc, who led Marist to the NCAA tournament four times and was most recently an assistant at Kansas State, immediately put his stamp on the program after being hired in July 2012.
Between the talent Bakich brought in and the professionalism Szefc demanded, the players knew they could end the 43-year tournament drought.
"The more you get away from mediocrity, maybe something like this can happen," Szefc said. "I never really saw a deal-breaker in [deciding to come to Maryland]. Any coach is going to have some kind of vision. It's not really a matter of if. It's a matter of when."
'Out with a bang'
After Maryland began the season by losing two of three at Florida, players remember reading a Baseball America story saying that they wouldn't be an NCAA tournament team. It added even more motivation for them.
"I think that's when guys realized, 'Alright, we really need to prove something this year,'" said sophomore right-hander Kevin Mooney (North Harford).
The team won its next seven games. Despite a few hiccups — like getting swept at Boston College and losing to James Madison — the Terps qualified for the ACC tournament for the first time since 2005, when every team in the conference was invited.
Starters Jake Stinnett, Jake Drossner and Mike Shawaryn emerged as anchors on the mound. Maryland batted .270 as a team during the regular season, while their opponents batted a measly .232. Few gave the Terps a shot against Virginia and Florida State in the ACC tournament, but the Terps beat both teams and surged into the championship before losing to Georgia Tech.
"They've got that stigma to them," Ruse said of Virginia and Florida State, both top-5 teams at the time Maryland faced them. "They're almost like a big league squad, but when we play, we can beat anybody."
The former coach Jackson suspects recruiting will become easier once Maryland moves to the Big Ten, because it will be one of the conference's southernmost schools, and players prefer to play in warmer weather.
The current players can leave satisfied that they've left their mark on the ACC.
"We kind of struggled in years past," Mooney said, "but I think now we've gone out with a bang. Don't forget who we are."
The moment the entire team, coaching staff and fan base waited years for had finally arrived. The ignominy that surrounded the program since 1971 would finally be removed.
Eyes remained glued to a projection screen inside Looney's Pub in College Park as team names were called during Monday's NCAA tournament selection show. Players gasped when Texas and Texas A&M were paired together. They groaned when Louisiana-Lafayette was shown celebrating. They waited anxiously, region by region, as their name still wasn't called.
"Before it, if you had asked me, I would have said 100 percent [we'd make it], but each name got rattled off," Ruse said. "We thought we were going to go to Vanderbilt. We thought we were going to Oregon State. We were like, 'Damn, were we actually going to make it?'"
A program that waited 43 years for their name to be called had to wait a little while longer.
And then it happened, when the final region was revealed.
Players, coaches and fans jumped, celebrating and hugging one another.
The wait was finally over. Maryland baseball is back in the NCAA tournament.