After coaching the Terrapins for three seasons, leading Maryland to its third-ever season with at least 30 wins in 2012, Coach Erik Bakich departed for Michigan last June. In stepped Szefc – pronounced “Chef” – with years of experience across multiple Division I schools, looking to continue the progress Bakich oversaw. He overhauled the staff, but assumed a program already brimming with young talent. Entering Friday’s season-opening series at 10th-ranked LSU, the Terps return all but one position player
“Having been from New York, when I was at Marist, I always kept an eye on the program over the years,” Szefc said Wednesday. “When Erik came here three years ago, you always follow it out of the corner of your eye, and he’s going to get things moving in the right direction, which he did. It became evident that he and the staff set it up for the next group pretty well. They set it up in a lot of ways. Player personnel and financial aid and facilities. They made it a lot easier for our coaching staff to come in and hopefully have success.”
Maryland’s strength derives from its experienced outfield, where Jordan Hagel (.317/.403/.478), Michael Montville (.234/.309/.352) and Charlie White (.203/.356/.254 in 17 games) all return as projected starters. White, who missed the majority of last season with a hand injury, is slated to lead off and start in center field against the national-powerhouse Tigers.
Add that to an infield led by third baseman K.J. Hockaday (.305/.367/.404), rated by Baseball America as the ACC’s eighth-best MLB prospect for the 2014 draft, and first baseman Tim Kiene (.241/.345/.414, team-high six homers), and the Terps have good reason to expect massive improvement on last season’s 10-20 conference mark, rather than endure the typical growing pains associated with a first-year coach.
“I guess you could say that,” Sfzec said. “The other side of it is that some of our better players are younger guys. You can’t really teach experience. With those younger guys you have to mentor and work with them and be patient, because it’s going to take them some time. Step by step, you go through the growing pains of those guys, and hopefully the older guys hold the ropes until those younger guys come along. Initially you just have to be patient with things.
“You’re not coming in, trying to fix a 10-40 season. Actually having been here, it’s an even better situation than I initially thought it was. The administration’s very much behind it. The other very pleasant surprise has been the passion surrounding the program by former players. There’s a lot of support there that, from the outside looking in, you really wouldn’t know.”
The pitching staff necessitated the most overhaul. In the bullpen, Szefc raved about the improvements of junior Jake Stinnett, the presumed closer with 94-mph speed and consistent movement who has transitioned from a two-way player into what his new coach hopes can become the team’s shutdown arm.
“The past two years, he hasn’t really flourished in either role,” Szefc said. “But this summer he turned into a pitcher only, and he had an outstanding summer as a closer in the NACBL. He’s setting himself up to be very effective in that role. In college baseball, there’s not a lot of true finishers. You see them here and there, but the real true finishers, it’s hard to say. He’s got the mentality, combined with the physical stuff, where he can come in and hopefully dominate at the point in the game where you really need a dominator.”
Senior Jimmy Reed, a converted closer who moved into the rotation on April 6, 2012, against North Carolina State, will get the ball in the season opener. The St. John’s College High School graduate was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 21st round last summe, but returned for his final season and instantly becomes Szefc’s top-of-the-rotation starter. Over the summer as a full-time starter, Reed pitched eight games for the Cape Cod League’s Orleans Firebirds, posting a 3.32 ERA in 40.2 innings with a 43-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“He started all summer in the Cape Cod League,” Szefc said. “He was very good. He was outstanding. He had prepared to be a starter before I ever got here, really. Every good team has a front-line guy, and they have a legitimate number three hitter. He is certainly that guy.”
And as for the team’s No. 3 hitter?
“In theory, Jordan Hagel should be,” Szefc said, adding that a season-ending injury to freshman infielder Brandon Lowe might push Hagel into the No. 2 spot. “He’s a pretty special offensive guy. He may end up hitting two rather than three. It’s too early to tell.”