The winter can be a brutal time to be a college baseball player. It falls right in the middle of structured fall ball and the spring season, and gets especially hard for those in the Northeast United States. They have to deal with below-freezing temperatures for months on end as they prepare for the collegiate season.
“I feel like a bunch of Northeast kids, especially [those in] Connecticut, have a lot of grit. And coming from the Northeast where the weather’s not great, it impacts us on the field too. We have those tough conditions in the winter and we have to potentially train outside, and it comes back on the field when we have to play in colder weather,” Maryland senior third baseman Nick Lorusso explained.
To make up for this, Lorusso and teammates Luke Shliger and Bobby Zmarzlak — all of whom live in Fairfield County, Connecticut — compete together with other collegiate athletes and MLB prospects in the offseason.
“We always like to compete and I feel like that translates to the game as well,” Lorusso said. “It makes the game a lot easier when we’re pushing each other that much harder.”
All three of them had unique ways of getting to Maryland, but they all have trained with each other since their early high school days.
Zmarzlak committed to Maryland in 2017, and was one of the best recruits in the nation according to Perfect Game USA. He was drafted in the 40th round in 2019 by the Baltimore Orioles, but declined that offer in favor of playing for the Terps.
“I always wanted to come to school,” he said. “I really liked the school, and came here and was happy.”
Shliger, who played on a prep team with Lorusso and Zmarzlak in high school, was the next player to come to Maryland after he graduated high school in 2020. With two former teammates thriving at Maryland, it was natural for Lorusso to follow suit after three years at Villanova, citing the group’s friendship, rivalry and hitting coach Matt Swope’s philosophy as motivators to come to College Park.
“When I felt like it was time to make a switch, I knew Maryland and the kind of program they were, and I relied on two good friends I had growing up and they told me what Maryland was all about and how it would be a great spot for me,” Lorusso said.
All three of them also cited their offseason trainer, Maxx Catapano, as a key reason for their successes on the field with the Terps.
Catapano is the owner of Maxx Cat Baseball in Milford, Connecticut. He has coached players aged 10-16 years old with the goal of getting kids to the next level. Many of his players have gone on to shine in college, including Georgia Tech junior outfielder Jake Deleo and Stanford freshman right-handed pitcher Matt Scott, both of whom were named their respective conference’s players of the week once this year.
In the offseason, the Maryland trio continuously competes with each other and fellow Connecticut-based athletes.
“Even now that they’re gone off to college, they kind of have just their own little clique of kids in this community,” Catapano said. “When they’re home, they’re all working out together all winter.”
“It’s kind of iron sharpens iron,” Shliger said. “It’s easy to go a winter without kind of getting in that competitive edge, and being able to be with those guys every day and compete keeps you in a competitive edge.”
“When we’re home training, we’re always competing against each other,” Zmarzlak added. “We’re always training against each other, pushing each other to be our best. We definitely play with an edge.”
The trio has also trained with several MLB prospects in the winter months, and all three have a chance to be drafted in the upcoming MLB draft. Shliger and Lorusso have the highest stock.
“It was cool seeing their evolution from high school to college and seeing them compete in college, but now they’re taking a step further for Connecticut kids,” Catapano said.
The trio is helping to establish a pipeline for players from the Northeast to come to Maryland.
“I think he’s always had an affinity and affection for us here in Maryland, and then when some of his kids came here, he’s been one of our biggest fans,” Swope said of Catapano. “I probably get around two to three text messages a day [from him], whether it’s about [Shliger, Lorusso or Zmarzlak] or a recruit.”
Vaughn described Catapano’s view on his players as “like a proud dad,” which is emulated by the way he posts about his players on social media as a celebration of their accomplishments. Both Swope and Vaughn have nothing but praise for Catapano.
“Maxx has turned into a really dear friend of ours,” Vaughn said. “... That guy just cares about his kids at a really high level.”
The most important thing to Vaughn is Catapano’s honesty. Vaughn described most people as “used car salesmen,” telling coaches and players what they want to hear. But in their relationship, Catapano has kept it straight with Vaughn about players have the most potential.
“When there’s another kid that comes from his part of the country, we get a phone call early on [from Catapano]. Like, ‘Hey, I got a guy up here. I think he’s your kind of kid,’” Vaughn said. “I think he’s the right fit. And at the same time, if there’s ever a kid up there, I can call Maxx and say, ‘Maxx, give me your take.’”
The relationship also has had an impact on Catapano. He continuously communicates with both Swope and Vaughn to help all of his kids. Some of Catapano’s pro-level players work with Swope, such as Atlanta Braves prospect Steve Paolini, whom Maxx says came to Maryland to hit with him in the winter.
From the success with Catapano and other coaches, Vaughn has continued to look everywhere for talent. But in order to establish a strong pipeline, it takes more coaches like Catapano in order to get players in these regions.
“This whole business is about relationships,” Vaughn explained. “If these coaches know that you’re gonna love them, take care of them, and help them develop, then they want to send you guys.”
A way to get these relationships is to build off the players and alumni one has, and the Terps have an array of talent from the Northeast that spans past the Connecticut trio. To name a few: Jason Savacool is from New York, Nigel Belgrave and Matt Shaw are from Massachusetts and Kyle McCoy from New Jersey. The success stories of these players is something the Terps hope encourage more players to see Maryland as a viable option.
“The Northeast has been really good at baseball for a really long time and I think some of the best in the business have been mining that area for quite some time,” Vaughn said. “I think getting a guy like Matt Shaw and some of those guys, it helps us get a foot in the door up there and start opening up some relationships.”
“That Maryland baseball team, they’re coming up to the plate to beat you ... that’s what a lot of Connecticut kids are. They’re kind of under the radar and they’re looking for an opportunity to make their name,” Catapano said. “It’s a good mix.”
“We’re kind of developing something that turns into a pipeline, where the top players in the Northeast want to come down here instead of going down to the south, which is big,” Shliger said. “If we can get the top guys up there to want to come and represent Maryland every year that’s kind of important to us because it’s how you leave a legacy after you’re here.”