College baseball’s regional weekend had its share of story lines and upsets. From Jackson State beating top-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette, to College of Charleston winning as a No. 4 seed, to Kennesaw State becoming the first team since Kansas in 1993 to win a regional in its first trip to NCAA tournament play, college baseball’s first postseason weekend provided a cornucopia of upsets.
Maryland coach John Szefc doesn’t want his Terrapins’ regional victory to be viewed in the same light. He knows it’s a big deal that his program, which hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1971, won its first regional, and that South Carolina is college baseball royalty. After all, his team played in the Gamecocks’ palatial Carolina Stadium all weekend, a park where the hosts had not lost in 28 postseason games, dating back to 2002.
“The atmosphere there was unbelievable,” Szefc said as his team bussed back to College Park, Md., the day after winning the regional with an emphatic 10-1 clincher. “It’s an awesome ballpark. When Coach (Ray) Tanner (now South Carolina’s athletic director) built that park, he knew exactly what he was doing. It’s absolutely a first-class place, very, very professional. So it does mean more . . .
“I didn’t even know about (the winning streak), but those guys are dominant in that ballpark. So to go in there and be successful, it’s just a very good achievement for us to do that and move on. I think our guys, to be honest, feel fortunate, but they expected to do that. I know it sounds cliche, but we didn’t go there expecting to lose. We went in there expecting to have success, and as coaches, we made sure that was the mindset going in.”
That’s been the mindset Szefc tried to instill at Maryland when he took over for Erik Bakich, who left for the Michigan job after the 2012 season. Bakich had begun to turn things around at Maryland, instilling energy and infusing the program with more talent.
But Maryland still hadn’t won anything. Szefc, who spent 10 seasons as an assistant at Louisiana-Lafayette, Kansas and Kansas State, had been a big winner at Marist, including five regional berths and a 41-14 season in his final year, 2002. He got the Terrapins believing they could win, even during a rugged 2014 schedule that included road series at Florida and Florida State in the first month.
Szefc has banked on a blue-collar team mentality with an opportunistic, speedy offense without a true star and a talented pitching staff. Senior righty Jake Stinnett and freshman righty Mike Shawaryn led the staff, and Shawaryn set the school single-season wins record with 11 through regionals while helping the team to a program-best 39 victories.
Stinnett, the prospect who throws 97 mph, has earned most of the attention, and as the Friday starter, he takes opponents’ best shots. He helped the Terps announce themselves nationally with a no-hitter against Massachusetts on March 1, as well as a 10-0 win against Carlos Rodon and N.C. State on March 21, in which he struck out 14.
Shawaryn deserves his share of the credit, though, with victories against Florida, Florida State and North Carolina. Then he held off South Carolina in the regional’s second game, a gritty 4-3 victory.
“He grew up winning for Gloucester (N.J.) Catholic and the Brooklawn American Legion program in Jersey,” Szefc said. “He won four state titles, and was MVP of the Legion World Series last year. He does not know what losing is. He’s mentally tough, as mentally tough as it gets. He got into the business school at Maryland as a freshman, which is hard to do. He has proved he can handle the big stage.”
So has Maryland. Now all it needs is a bigger stage, which will get in a super regional this weekend at powerhouse Virginia. Once upon a time, Virginia and Maryland were twin Atlantic Coast Conference backwater programs, cold-weather schools in a warm-weather league.
Then Brian O’Connor was hired at Virginia, which poured money into its baseball program (as did author John Grisham, who helped fund its Davenport Field) and saw it blossom into one of the nation’s best. Maryland, on its way out of the ACC (of which it is a charter member) for the Big Ten, could move in the same direction.
As Szefc acknowledges, Maryland will need a new campus ballpark, one where it can host a regional. But the regional win at South Carolina has woken fans and local media to the possibilities of college baseball.
“Typically Maryland is thought of as a strong lacrosse area, but I have three young kids, all playing baseball and softball, and when I go to youth league parks for their games, they are packed with baseball people,” Szefc said. “So don’t think it’s not a baseball state because it is. You’ve just got to look a little bit beneath the covers . . .
“There are huge baseball fans in state of Maryland; it’s just a matter of getting them up to speed on college baseball.”
Here’s a quick primer for DC-area and Maryland baseball fans: Winning a regional on the road against a Southeastern Conference superpower is a big deal. And the Terrapins did it.