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For Rob Vaughn and Maryland baseball, this dream season is just the start

Rob Vaughn led the Maryland baseball team to the best season in school history. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Rob Vaughn is 34. He already has been the baseball coach at the University of Maryland for five years. This spring, the Terrapins won 45 games, more than they had in the 130-year history of the program. They were crowned Big Ten regular season champions, the school’s first such title in more than half a century. This weekend, they host an NCAA tournament regional for the first time.

So the easy read is, “This guy’s outta here.”

And then you talk to him.

“I believe in building stuff,” Vaughn said Thursday. “That’s what I’ve been about my entire career.”

This weekend’s event — in which the Terrapins face Long Island on Friday evening but also will have to beat out Connecticut and Wake Forest to advance to next weekend’s super regionals — is in some ways the culmination of what Vaughn and his staff have built. The Terps have now reached the NCAA tournament eight times — five since Vaughn arrived from Kansas State for his first full-time assistant coaching job in 2012.

Maryland baseball is having the best season in school history and wants more

But how Vaughn ended up in this spot at this time is exactly what Maryland’s administration must prevent from happening again, just as the program is starting to take hold like it never has before. Vaughn came to College Park from his alma mater to work under John Szefc, the former Kansas State assistant who landed the head job with the Terps. The job was open because Erik Bakich, the Terps’ coach for three seasons, left for Michigan.

“The cupboard was full,” Vaughn said, and he and Szefc turned Bakich’s talent into back-to-back dream seasons in 2014 and ’15, when the Terps advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

And then Szefc left for … Virginia Tech?

Yes, Szefc has the Hokies in the NCAAs this year as the fourth seed with a 41-12 record, coming out of the rugged ACC — well above the 15th-seeded Terrapins, who lost back-to-back games for the first time all year in the Big Ten tournament. But it says here that Maryland shouldn’t be a springboard to land at Virginia Tech — no matter the coach, no matter the sport.

Back to Vaughn. Because of his combination of youth and experience, because of his obvious strengths as a communicator and the results he has gotten on the field, it’s not hard to imagine some prominent school in a conference where baseball matters more than it does in the Big Ten would take a run at him — and soon.

And then he talks about Maryland. Not the limitations, with Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium wedged modestly onto campus, its backless red seats faded to a dull pink under so much sunlight. Rather, he sees the possibilities — tickets for the weekend sold out five hours after they went on sale, an administration that decided not to punt on hosting but to embrace it.

“The more we do this in the next couple of years, the more it signals that, ‘Holy cow, this is not a steppingstone,’” Vaughn said. “As we dig our heels in and continue to work, there’s no reason this shouldn’t be the next Oregon State, the next Vanderbilt, the next Virginia. A few years back, those places weren’t what they are. But a coach stayed.”

He chose those schools for a reason, and they demonstrate the lofty thoughts that not only float through Vaughn’s mind but push him in his work. In 1995, Oregon State had been to three NCAA tournaments in its history and hired Pat Casey. When Casey retired after the 2018 season — which the Beavers concluded by winning their third national title — he had made 13 trips to the postseason and reached the College World Series six times. In 2003, Vanderbilt had been to three NCAA tournaments and hired Tim Corbin. Sixteen postseason appearances later, Corbin is still at it, trying to reach Omaha for the sixth time, where he would go for his third national title. In 2004, Virginia had reached only three NCAA tournaments as well and hired Brian O’Connor. This is the Cavaliers’ 16th appearance in the tourney under O’Connor, who won the championship in 2015.

A coach stayed. That could happen at … Maryland?

“It’s a joint effort,” Vaughn said. “It’s the administration deciding, ‘Hey, we can do this thing.’ Which they’re doing, man.”

The easy thing, Vaughn said, would have been for Maryland’s administrators to allow, say, Wake Forest to host this regional because the Demon Deacons have a combination of experience and facilities that Maryland doesn’t. Instead, Vaughn’s bosses maxed out, bringing in extra bleachers in left, hanging banners, turning Smith Stadium into the best version of itself.

“Everything that they put together, they did a great job of doing that really quickly,” said junior lefty Ryan Ramsey, who will get the ball against Long Island. “It’s going to be really exciting to see that kind of atmosphere this weekend.”

Those extra bells and whistles — yeah, they’re for show. But what it shows Vaughn is a commitment. It’s a step to creating something sustainable. The next is continuity.

“Getting a coach who wants to build, who doesn’t chase the bright, shiny things,” Vaughn said. “That’s how we recruit here. We get kids who care about the right stuff. But it starts with me at the top. If I care about stuff that doesn’t matter or care about the wrong stuff, it sends a signal.”

The signal Vaughn wants to send: All of these milestones — a 24-2 record at home, the third-most home runs in the country, the Big Ten player of the year in senior outfielder Chris Alleyne — aren’t the end result of years of work. They’re the basis for a foundation that should hold up well into the future.

“Kind of the whole vibe from the team is we have a lot left to accomplish this year,” sophomore shortstop Matt Shaw said.

With the first regional in College Park afoot and the clear goal and expectation of winning it, that’s a reasonable assessment for a kid in the lineup. For the coach who fills out the lineup card, the vision has to be broader. Vaughn’s is.

“Being another brick in the wall is never a problem,” he said. “You can go to a program and jump somewhere bigger and be there a little bit and think something else is more pristine. But the reality is when you can look past all that, you see what you’re capable of doing where you are.”

What the Terrapins are capable of is a lot more than when Rob Vaughn arrived from the prairie a decade ago. The trick will be continuing to help him put more bricks in that wall so that 2022 isn’t an outlier that exists in a scrapbook but one of the seasons that established the Terps as a postseason participant year after year after year.

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