The final piece of the NCAA baseball tournament’s round of super regionals wasn’t set until approximately 2 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday, when Maryland pitcher Kevin Mooney froze UCLA’s Darrell Miller Jr. with a breaking ball. That sent the Terrapins dugout into euphoria that spilled onto the field of Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles, celebrating a hard-fought 2-1 win over the Bruins and another step toward the team’s dream of making its first appearance in the College World Series.
Maryland will meet Virginia in the super regionals for the second straight season in a best-of-three series starting at 4 p.m. Friday in Charlottesville. The winner will advance to the College World Series beginning June 13 in Omaha, a prospect that appeared unlikely for both teams just three weeks ago.
A night after Virginia won the Lake Elsinore Region with an 11-inning win over Southern California, Maryland followed suit about 90 miles northwest, using stellar pitching to stun the Bruins, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, on their home field. The Terrapins and Cavaliers planned on sharing a charter flight back to the East Coast on Tuesday, another symbol of their unconventional routes to this point in the season.
“It’s almost like a deja vu kind of thing. Really not for us, but for [Virginia] too,” Maryland Coach John Szefc told reporters after the regional win. “We’re three seeds that come out to California, and ironically we’re going to play against each other for two straight years. I mean, it kind of shows you how bizarre college baseball can be.”
After going 43 years between NCAA tournament appearances and never reaching a super regional, the Terrapins (42-22) have set a program record for wins in consecutive seasons. They, along with the Cavaliers, are among the six teams this year to repeat as winners in the regional round, when the tournament field is culled from 64 teams to 16 through double-elimination brackets of four teams apiece.
Virginia (37-22), which eliminated Maryland in three games last year to reach the College World Series and ultimately advanced to the national championship, is in the super regionals for the sixth time in seven years. But several weeks ago simply reaching its conference tournament was in doubt.
“I’m just so proud of our ballclub,” Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor said after the Cavaliers won the Lake Elsinore Region. “It’s been noted how much this club has went through throughout this season. We’ve endured more than any ballclub that I’ve coached in our 12 years here at Virginia.”
Virginia opened this year at No. 1 in some national polls, but it began the season with 14 freshmen on the roster and then was leveled with injuries. The Cavaliers, down to 12 active position players a few weeks into the regular season, were forced to try out members of the university’s club team.
Sophomore outfielder Tyler Allen left the team in August. Freshman second baseman Jack Gerstenmaier tore his hamstring a month later and wasn’t healthy until April. Preseason all-American right fielder Joe McCarthy underwent back surgery and missed the first two months. Starting catcher Robbie Coman injured his knee early in the season. Hip surgery in early April ended junior John La Prise’s season. Ace Nathan Kirby has been out since April 17 with a strain of his left latissimus dorsi muscle, though he could return for the super regional. Freshman right-hander Derek Casey suffered an elbow injury four days after Kirby was hurt.
O’Connor was less concerned with injuries than with central tenets of his program, pitching and defense. The Cavaliers have 72 errors this season, compared to 51 committed last year. Their pitchers have issued 249 walks, their most in a season under O’Connor.
But Virginia earned an at-large NCAA bid on the strength of a solid ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index and six wins in its last seven regular season games and stifled USC (6-1) and San Diego State (3-1) in its first two tournament games. Then the offense broke through in a 14-10, regional-clinching victory over the Trojans in a game that lasted more than five hours.
Maryland began May losing seven of 10 games and closed the regular season with two losses in a series with Northwestern, which finished 18-36. It traveled to the Big Ten tournament in Minneapolis on the NCAA tournament bubble, ranked 59th in RPI. Like Virginia, it had dealt with injuries all season but Szefc remained convinced his team would peak at the right time.
Maryland earned an at-large bid by reeling off three straight wins in the Big Ten tournament — including a 2-1 victory that snapped Illinois’ 27-game winning streak — before losing in the title game to Michigan.
Szefc was ejected from that game and subsequently suspended for the team’s first two NCAA tournament games, although that became an afterthought by the opener Friday against Ole Miss. Led by right-handed ace Mike Shawaryn, the Terrapins held the Rebels to just two hits in a 3-1 win. They again flashed their pitching depth in a 4-1 win over UCLA on Saturday.
Even after the Bruins pushed Maryland to a rubber match with a 4-2 win on Sunday night, the team’s stable of young arms came through Monday. Freshman right-hander Taylor Bloom was precise, using his change-up to keep the Bruins off-balance for the first six innings, which he completed with just 57 pitches thrown and one hit allowed. Mooney, who had developed into Maryland’s reliable closer during last season’s run, polished off the win in the final three innings.
Mooney said after the win that the team took note of its placement in the same bracket with Virginia during the selection show last month, calling it “exactly the place we wanted to be.”
“As much as we love California and the weather out here,” Mooney said, “we want to head back home and take on the team that knocked us out last year.”