Maryland baseball is in the NCAA regionals for the first time since 2017 and entering the postseason as one of the hottest teams in all of college baseball. Head coach Rob Vaughn’s group has won 18 of their last 22 games.
“It feels great,” junior shortstop Benjamin Cowles said. “We’re soaking up the moment, trying to live where our feet are and just enjoying the moment.”
The Terps were awarded a three-seed in the Greenville region and will face No. 2 Charlotte in the opening game on Friday at 6 p.m. The winner of that contest will take on the winner of No. 1 East Carolina/No. 4 Norfolk State and the loser of each game will also meet on Saturday.
The regional is a double-elimination style bracket, meaning a team has to lose twice before they are eliminated. The final team standing will move on to the super regionals the following weekend for a chance to play in the College World Series in Omaha.
“I don’t think we’re looking at this thing like this is our last weekend together,” Vaughn said. “I think we feel very confident that we can go in there and make some noise in this thing.”
No. 1 East Carolina (41-15)
East Carolina has been a juggernaut all season, propelling them to a No. 1 seed and a host site for regionals. This is the Pirates' fifth postseason appearance in the last six years and the third consecutive tournament they have earned a top seed. East Carolina participates in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) where they captured the regular-season title this season despite losing in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
The Pirates are 19-6 all-time against Maryland with the last contest at Maryland in 2019.
“It’s clearly an advantage for them,” Vaughn said when talking about the tournament experience East Carolina has. “There's no question. They’ve been here, we’re at their park, they know the ins and outs.”
Players to know
Second baseman Connor Norby is the engine behind the Pirates lineup. The sophomore was named the AAC Player of the Year after leading the league in batting average, hits and runs scored. Norby has been a handful for pitchers all season, which the Terps can expect to continue if they face the Pirates at some point in the weekend.
Right-handed pitcher Galvin Williams is the Pirates’ ace and a machine on the mound. The junior has yet to record a loss this season, posting a 9-0 record with a 1.48 ERA and 98 strikeouts. Those marks all led the conference, earning Williams The American regular-season triple crown and the Pitcher of the Year award in the conference.
Depth. East Carolina is capable of beating teams in low-scoring pitching duels, while also getting the better of opponents in slugfests. That is in large part due to a deep pitching staff and lineup that the Pirates can throw at opponents, with weapons coming from all over able to cause damage.
None. It is hard to find a weakness with a team that has been as productive at both the plate and the mound as East Carolina has this year. The Pirates’ ability to both drive in runs and limit opponents’ runs allowed them to capture a No. 1 seed and a host site in this year's tournament.
No. 2 Charlotte (39-19)
Charlotte will be making its sixth postseason appearance in program history this weekend, and its first since 2011. Charlotte competes in the loaded Conference USA and finished with the best record in the league. The 49ers, however, grabbed an at-large bid as they were bounced from the conference tournament. As the No. 2 seed, the 49ers will be Maryland’s first opponent, a matchup that will set up the rest of the weekend for both squads.
Players to know
Infielder Austin Knight impressed all of college baseball in his sophomore season. Knight earned the Conference USA Player and Newcomer of the Year award. Knight had a batting average of .351 and hit 10 homers while recording 61 RBIs.
“They’ve got a superstar in Austin Knight,” Vaughn said. “My goodness that guys got some gaudy numbers.”
Right-handed pitcher Bryce McGowan is the 49ers' go-to guy on the mound, leading the team in starts and innings pitched. The sophomore is 7-4 on the year and has recorded 99 punchouts. Batters hit an average of .236 against McGowan.
Hitting. Charlotte’s power comes from its deep and well-rounded lineup that drives the ball incredibly well. The 49ers have a team batting average of .298. The offensive firepower is led by Knight, but Charlotte has a hoist of guys that are capable of creating havoc at the plate. Charlotte has four guys who have recorded over 50 hits this season.
Inconsistent pitching. Other than McGowan, Charlotte does not have a ton of guys to rely on, especially out of the bullpen. While on any given night certain pitchers are capable of throwing a gem, they have been inconsistent throughout the season. Only two pitchers have pitched over 75 innings for the 49ers, while the next closest pitcher has thrown in just 50 innings.
No. 4 Norfolk State (25-26)
Norfolk State is making its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance as an automatic bid as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions. Sporting a losing record, the Spartans had an up and down year but got hot in time for the tournament and were able to capture their conference championship to earn a coveted NCAA Tournament bid.
Player to know
Senior Danny Hosley is a do-it-all force for this Spartan team. Hosley is a pitcher, while he also plays other positions. He is a finalist for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award, granted to someone who pitches while also plays another position. Hosley was named the MEAC Player of the Year.
Hosley posted a 7-1 record and a 2.95 ERA in 11 appearances, including 10 starts on the mound. At the plate, he leads the conference in batting average with .375 and has 23 RBIs and one home run.
Starting pitching. The Spartans' top guys in the rotation have put together phenomenal starts and can go deep into games when they need to. Hosley is one of those guys, along with lefty James Deloatch. They are a combined 14-3 on the year and have 142 strikeouts between the two of them.
Depth. The Spartans have a few hitters capable of creating havoc at the plate, but overall they lack depth in the lineup. Only one Spartan has a slugging percentage of .500 or higher and only two players have recorded over 50 hits on the season.
Three things to watch
1. How will Maryland compete against out-of-conference opponents? Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Big Ten teams played games against each other only and no one out of the conference. The Big Ten was the only major conference to implement this format. As a result, this weekend will be the first time this season the Terps compete against out-of-conference opponents when they take on Charlotte on Friday night.
2. How will the Terps approach pitching matchups? It will be interesting to see how Maryland’s coaching staff approaches the pitching situation with only Friday and Saturday games guaranteed but the possibility they could be playing until Monday. Nick Dean had been the starter for the series opener the last few weeks, but he is out with an injury. Jason Savacool will get the start on Friday night. It remains to be seen when Sean Burke, Maryland’s best pitcher, will take the mound, but will likely depend on the outcome of game one.
“We’re putting a lot of faith in a guy like Jason Savacool, running him out there in game as a true freshman,” Vaughn said. “But he’s a winner and I think he’s a good matchup for this lineup.”
3. What will Maryland’s path throughout the weekend look like? Whether Maryland wins on Friday night will dictate the path the rest of the weekend. If the Terps beat Charlotte on Friday, they would play the winner of No. 1 East Carolina/No. 4 Norfolk State and guarantee themselves an opportunity to play on Sunday. If they lose to Charlotte, they would play the loser of East Carolina/Norfolk State on Saturday in a win-or-go-home situation.
“The thing with our group is they don’t view themselves as an underdog. I can tell you that for sure,” Vaughn said.