Before he accepted the job in July 2012, Maryland baseball Coach John Szefc kept looking for “deal-breakers.”
He wanted another head coaching gig, but needed to know how a school full of strong athletic programs could fail to qualify for the ACC tournament, let alone the NCAA tournament, year after year. There had to be a reason his predecessor, former coach Erik Bakich, left a powerhouse league for the Big Ten, a mid-major in the college baseball landscape.
“Is there anything so bad that I’ve got to walk away?” he wondered.
Szefc raised that question again Tuesday, standing a few feet away from the puddles that cut short practice at Shipley Field, the home of Maryland baseball in the heart of campus since 1965. With the Terrapins two wins away from the College World Series, he now downplays the obstacles they’ve overcome. The outdated facility, the meager budget, the lack of tradition — none of it mattered.
“A lot of guys like to step in where it’s already established, which is fine,” Szefc said. “I always wanted to kind of get involved with a place where I could build something special.”
He is well on his way, with Maryland (39-21) playing Virginia (47-13) on Saturday in Charlottesville in the first game of the best-of-three super regional round of the NCAA tournament. This is the first time the Terps have advanced to this stage.
The Terrapins, who set a school record for wins, had qualified for the NCAA tournament only three times — and not since 1971 — before this season. And the program’s re-emergence has been sudden, with Maryland winning 14 of its past 16.
But behind the surge is the straightforward approach of Szefc. When the Terrapins entered May with a 9-14 conference record, he refused to panic. Instead, ace Jake Stinnett said, Szefc became less hands on. He “didn’t ride us as much as Bakich did,” Stinnett said.
Dominant pitching and timely hits soon followed.
“It took me a little bit longer to get a grasp of the old and the young on this team. I didn’t find that out early enough,” Szefc said. “Our staff in general realized it’s probably a good situation just to back off a little bit and let these guys figure out some things on their own a little bit. Because they’re either going to figure things out for themselves or they’re not. We’re either going to go north or we’re going to go south. And we’ve figured a lot of things out and we’ve gone north.”
Szefc’s calm came from orchestrating a similar turnaround a decade ago at Marist. After leading the school to its first four NCAA tournament appearances, he then spent 10 years as an assistant at Louisiana-Lafayette, Kansas and Kansas State, building his reputation as a recruiter and hitting coach at a national level.
“My contacts were through the roof from recruiting nationally, and it better prepared me for something like this,” Szefc said. “A lot happened in those 10 years.”
But he longed to return East when Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson came calling with a predicament following the 2012 season.
Bakich had made strides during three years on the recruiting trail, and the Terrapins responded by recording at least 30 wins for just the third time in 2012. The team, though, hadn’t qualified for the ACC tournament since 2005. Bakich was then hired away by Michigan, the lure of more financial support and a recently renovated stadium enough to justify the unorthodox move of leaving one of college baseball’s elite conferences.
The Terrapins spent $187,549 in operating expenses on baseball during the 2012-13 season, according to the school’s most recent U.S. Department of Education filings, lower than every team left in this year’s NCAA tournament field and the entire Big Ten. Virginia, in comparison, spent $680,535.
But in Szefc, Anderson found a coach who had shown he could win on a small budget. “You can have the biggest budget in the world, the coolest uniforms, the nicest equipment contracts,” Szefc said. “At the end of the day, it’s what happens with the 27 outs. And you’re either good enough or not good enough.”
Said Anderson: “This season has proven we’re moving forward and we can build a great program here.”
Szefc melded Bakich-recruited players like Stinnett and center fielder Charlie White with a couple junior college transfers, tweaked the team’s approach at the plate and on the base paths by emphasizing aggression, and took some lumps fast-tracking talented underclassmen such as first baseman LaMonte Wade and second baseman Brandon Lowe (team-high .339 batting average) onto the field.
It all culminated last weekend, when the Terrapins made history by shocking South Carolina — first by ending the Gamecocks’ 28-game postseason home winning streak, then by eliminating them in a 10-1 rout — to advance to a best-of-three series against the Cavaliers with a coveted spot in Omaha on the line.
“I never did run into that deal-breaker,” Szefc said with a smile.