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Under John Szefc, Maryland baseball has finally arrived

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The Terps have shed a mediocre history to become one of college baseball's better programs.

Maryland baseball head coach John Szefc is on the verge of taking the Terps to a second NCAA Tournament in two years.
Maryland baseball head coach John Szefc is on the verge of taking the Terps to a second NCAA Tournament in two years.
Courtesy: Maryland Athletics

In July 2012, John Szefc had a decision to make.

His current stop in a winding career was Kansas State, where he'd helped the Wildcats to an NCAA Tournament bid in 2011 and worked two years as the program's associate head baseball coach.

That summer, Maryland head coach Erik Bakich left College Park after three seasons. Bakich had lifted Maryland from a 17-39 calamity in his first season to a respectable 32-24 in 2012, and the head coach cashed in his chips. Michigan offered him its head-coaching job. Bakich took it.

Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson offered Szefc the Terps' head job.

"I was looking for reasons not to take it," Szefc said after a recent Maryland practice. "I was looking for reasons, like negative things. Deal-breakers, I guess. I was looking for deal-breakers, and I never came across a true deal-breaker. For me, it was like, ‘If we can get good players in here – because Erik had already done that – if we can get good players in here and I can get the coaches I want in here, we'll be good, regardless of anything else that's going around.'"

Three seasons later, Szefc's vision has come true. But before it did, in 2013, Mike Shawaryn had two decisions to make.

First, Shawaryn, a top pitching prospect out of Gloucester (N.J.) Catholic, had to decide on a college commitment between Vanderbilt and Maryland. The Commodores, the perennial power that has sent pitchers like David Price and Sonny Gray to the major leagues in recent years, typically get what they want. Last year, they won the national title – but they didn't get Shawaryn, who chose Maryland, in part because he wanted to "be the first" of something there.

"I really wanted to just be at a program that I really wanted to be at," Shawaryn said. "A lot of people pick really early, and sometimes I wonder if they really, actually want to be there. But when I chose Maryland, my heart was 100 percent here. I don't regret [not] going to Vanderbilt."

"When I chose Maryland, my heart was 100 percent here." -Mike Shawaryn

Still, the Kansas City Royals took Shawaryn in the 32nd round of the summer's MLB Draft. Shawaryn opted for college, though, content to develop and take his chances three years later in another draft. So the Terrapins got their man.

Since then, Shawaryn has become a bona-fide staff ace for 32-16 Maryland, which came within a game of the College World Series a year ago and looks primed to contend in postseason play again. In games through May 3, he had a 1.74 earned-run average, backed by a 100-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 82 2/3 innings. He has already broken the school's career wins record, with 21 in 28 starts over two seasons.

"They've been playing since the 1800s," said John Vittas, who calls play-by-play for the Maryland Baseball Network. "But based on the numbers in the program's history, at this point next year, there's going to be no arguing against the point that he's the best pitcher who's ever played for Maryland."

The Terrapins have won two-thirds of their games. They are a good bet to appear in their second-consecutive NCAA Tournament this summer, a feat they haven't accomplished since 1970 and 1971. Looking back deeper, they've played in the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship a grand total of four times, out of almost 70 seasons since it was established in 1947.

Their super-regional appearance last year was the only time ever the Terps have moved past the first stage of college baseball's tournament. Behind Shawaryn, Szefc and a cast of veteran leaders, they just might do it again.

Maryland's ascent under Szefc has been quick, but it's been a long time coming.

Terrapins baseball has existed, strictly speaking, since 1893. It has never occupied the hearts and minds of Maryland's student body, really, because the program has almost never been worth the emotional investment. Maryland won three ACC championships between 1965 and 1971, but otherwise has won a total of zero conference crowns and made zero NCAA Tournament stops in more than 100 years of competitive play beyond the last two.

This season will be Maryland's fourth in a row with a winning record, but just its 10th time since 1978. With the right kind of postseason run, the Terps stand a reasonable shot at breaking their single-season wins record of 40, which last year's team set during the tournament. For this particular baseball program, times have almost never been this good.

"I think it's a combination of talent accumulation and having good coaches, good assistant coaches to be able to develop guys and constantly be on them – constantly be on them," Szefc said. "The daily maintenance of being a high-level program, I think, in any sport in college athletics is way under-judged by people that aren't in the middle of it."

It doesn't hurt to have good players, as Szefc readily admits, and Maryland clearly has them. The program hasn't been totally bereft of professional-level prospects in its history, but it's been far from a professional talent hub. The Terps had four players taken in last summer's MLB Draft, and Szefc anticipates Maryland could take "monstrous" losses to the draft after this season.

"If you don't bring in good players, you don't want to go from being in the penthouse to the outhouse," he said. "You want to be able to maintain that, and the way you do it is with good players, so that's kind of this year, more than any, has been a real challenge to do that, knowing what we may lose and where we want to keep things."

Even if Maryland loses a mass of players and high-school commitments to the draft, the Terps feel better suited to sustain that attrition now than at any point in the recent past. In large part, that's because they've drawn in prospects and developed them over time.

Shawaryn was a 32nd-round pick two years ago, but he's widely viewed as a potential top-rounder when he likely re-enters the draft in his junior season next year. Former pitcher Jake Stinnett was a 29th-round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013, then a second-rounder by the Chicago Cubs after Maryland sprinkled more seasoning on him last season. Pitcher Jimmy Reed went from the 21st round in 2012 to the sixth in 2013. Maryland has just two alumni in the major leagues right now – San Francisco outfielder Justin Maxwell and Toronto reliever Brett Cecil – but that amount is likely to rise in the next five years as a smattering of ex-Terrapins with pedigrees work their way through minor-league systems.

"I knew I'd have time here to develop and get a great education," Shawaryn said. "In both perspectives, it was kind of easy."

shawaryn Sung Min Kim/Testudo Times

Maryland pitcher Mike Shawaryn has a program-record 21 career wins. (Photo: Maryland Athletics)

Shawaryn is Maryland's headliner and perhaps the best prospect the team has had in a generation. But he's had help in the form of an offense that leads the Big Ten in runs despite a middling .265 team batting average.

The Terps comfortably lead their new conference in walks and have managed to cycle runners around the base paths with a mixture of patience and power. They are 10th in the league in average, but second in on-base percentage through the weekend. In home runs, they are first.

"It's not really that different," said second baseman Brandon Lowe, the team's most prolific hitter. "Last year, we walked a lot, too. It's hard to put an inning together when you've got to go hit, hit, hit and just keep getting hits."

Lowe is listed at 5 feet 10 inches and 178 pounds, but he doesn't look that big in person. He's one of the smallest players on the field, but he's hit .352 with an on-base percentage close of .459. His nine home runs and 33 walks lead the team, as does his .582 slugging percentage. He's been terrorizing opposing pitching staffs all season.

"He's kind of un-expecting power-wise. He's just a little guy, but he plays the game really well, and he probably is one of the best hitters I've ever been around, with his eye," Shawaryn said. "I know just from pitching to him in [team scrimmages], some of the pitches he lays off, I'm just like, ‘Jesus, come on, dude. Give me a swing once in awhile.'"

Maryland is a young team, with just two seniors and 10 juniors on a roster of 35. But its offensive strength comes with experience. Lowe is a redshirt sophomore and a two-year starter now. Juniors LaMonte Wade and Anthony Papio have often teamed with senior Tim Lewis in a dynamic outfield, and junior catcher Kevin Martir provides pop from behind the plate, and his childhood friend Jose Cuas at third base. The lineup has depth up and down.

"We're lucky we have some guys on this roster that can do some special things at times," Szefc said.

Just how special this season's team will be remains to be seen. Szefc says, "I hope so," when asked if it can go as far as the last team, but the postseason is not easily predicted. The Terps are positioned well for another tournament bid, probably even if they don't manage to win the Big Ten's tournament in Minneapolis later this spring.

The team's outlook is still cloudy, but that it is in playoff striking distance – for a second year in a row – is unusual for a program that has rarely breathed this kind of air. Maryland's players feel like they're perceived differently now than they used to be. To some, this is the sort of baggage that takes some acclimation.

"This year, we're obviously getting more looks nationally, and we have a target on our back. Everyone wants to beat us, and some of these guys are just taking it kind of easy," Martir said after a loss to Virginia Commonwealth on April 22. "Some of these young guys don't understand what we have here, the type of team we have now, so I think we're getting a lot more attention this year, and guys want to beat us. We're not the ones hunting. We're the ones being hunted."

Maryland spent decades as a small fish in the ACC's enormous pond. The Terps regularly had to punch above their weight class in series against storied programs at Florida State, Virginia, Clemson, North Carolina and North Carolina State. But now the Terps are better themselves, and they are playing in a Big Ten that doesn't have the logjam of behemoths ordinarily fighting it out in the ACC.

"It's just not been a historical conference," Lowe said. "It's a very good conference, despite what people think."

Still, this league gives the Terps a smoother path than the ACC ever did. The 2015 Terps would have been competitive in any college league, but the Big Ten doesn't have anyone who hopelessly overmatches them. So this stretch run presents Szefc's team with an attractive opportunity, of the kind Maryland teams have not had often.

"We come out here every day and we know that we're fortunate to be in the situation we are in. We know that we're playing for the name across the chest and not on our backs, Wade said. "I think guys know what that means."

Maryland hopes it means more fan support and a higher profile for baseball on campus. The Terps packed 1,370 people into Bob "Turtle" Smith Stadium for a weekend game against Cal State Fullerton in April, and they've gotten more exposure this year than in the recent past. Virtually no one expects the baseball program to sniff the popularity level of football or men's basketball, but it could dig out a long-term niche somewhere in the campus's conscience.

Vittas, who has called the program's games for different outlets for four years, said the Terps' best-case scenario is to model themselves after Virginia.

"That's about as good as Maryland can get, which is really good," Vittas said. "That would make them an upper-echelon college baseball program."

The Cavaliers, who beat Maryland to move to the College World Series a year ago, have carved out a place for themselves in Charlottesville and in major college baseball. They've produced 10 picks in the top-10 draft rounds since 2012 and won 103 games over the two seasons before this one. They sit regularly near the top of the competitive ACC.

Maryland has nothing to match Virginia's 4,980-seat Davenport Field, which opened in 2002 and has drawn more than 110,00 fans in each of the last four seasons, the school reports. There have been whispers about a new baseball facility in College Park – with upgrades on Smith Stadium's metal bleachers and small, open-air press box, among other things – but those are still just whispers. Until they become more than that, Maryland's possibilities might be limited.

"The ceiling is going to come down to the stadium," Vittas said.

Still, Maryland has made enormous progress. How high the Terps rise remains to be seen, but this entire conversation is one this baseball program has rarely had in the past.

"It's been a fun part, just kind of embracing the buzz. Especially last year, when we would go down to, you know, Florida State and play some big-time schools and see all the fans they draw," Shawaryn said. "It's nice to kind of see that same support around this program."