Maryland baseball Coach John Szefc’s coaching path has winded through six states over the past 26 years; over the past three, he has steadily built the Terrapins. Most thought Szefc’s journey would take another turn out of College Park last spring after he led Maryland to a school-record 42 wins and a second straight appearance in an NCAA super regional, one step from the College World Series.
But in June, around the time that he surfaced as a potential candidate to fill the coaching vacancy at Clemson, Szefc inked a five-year contract extension to stay at Maryland. If the program had once been considered a possible steppingstone for other ambitious managers, Szefc has turned it into something more permanent.
He’s kept the same coaching staff for three years. He has won 112 games since arriving in 2012 and led the school to its first consecutive postseason trips since 1970-1971. Need further proof that Maryland baseball is booming? The Terrapins had a school-record eight players selected in the Major League Baseball draft last summer and received significant upgrades to their home stadium, including new field turf and outfield walls. Now Szefc wants to build more, beginning his fourth season on Friday when Maryland opens with a three-game series at Alabama.
“I’ve found that you can have a very good quality of life working in the baseball program here,” Szefc said. “The people you’re working with, the players you’re coaching, the facilities you’re working in, it’s become a very good quality of life for a lot of people.”
Maryland baseball has become “a brand,” as senior pitcher Robert Galligan puts it, but the players carry a bad taste in their mouths over how the past two seasons have ended. Virginia has crushed the program’s dreams for its first College World Series in both years. Last year’s series was particularly painful.
Maryland blew a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning in the first game of the Charlottesville Super Regional, then gave up a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth for a 5-4 season-ending loss in the second game of the best-of-three series. It overshadowed a season that included a trip to the Big Ten championship game and an upset of UCLA in the West Region, but it also sent Szefc and his staff on a mission to sharpen the team’s mental approach entering 2016.
“We think we’re on the rise, because we haven’t gotten out of the super regional yet. If you don’t think you’re on the rise and you’re content with the status quo, that’s not how we are. We have a bitter taste in our mouth,” Galligan said. “We want more.”
Szefc had prepared far in advance for heavy personnel losses, and Maryland enters this season with plenty of experience and depth. The Terrapins, picked to finish second behind Michigan in the six-team Big Ten by conference coaches, return an all-American in junior pitcher Mike Shawaryn, who won a school-record 13 games and set another program mark with 138 strikeouts last season.
He’s the centerpiece of a pitching staff that will include right-handers Brian Shaffer (5-1 in 2015) and Taylor Bloom (2-3), both of whom came on strong during the postseason as freshmen. Galligan provides a seasoned left-handed reliever who hit career marks in ERA (2.74) and strikeouts (58) in 27 appearances last season, while sophomore Ryan Selmer and junior Mike Rescigno give Maryland experienced options in the bullpen.
“I think we have a lot of good young talent coming in, with a mix of some really good older guys with a lot of experience,” Shawaryn said. “Guys that have been around the college game a lot.”
Maryland will have to replace more than half of its RBI and home run production from a year ago, with sophomore shortstop Kevin Smith and redshirt senior outfielder Anthony Papio the only two returning mainstays from last year’s lineup. Smith hit .273 with seven home runs and 35 RBI en route to earning freshman all-American honors in 2015, while Papio was only one of two players to start all 66 games and batted .262 and finished with a .370 on-base percentage.
Szefc is also relying on redshirt freshman third baseman Andrew Bechtold (seven starts in 2015) and sophomore catcher Justin Morris (27 starts) to full holes in the lineup, as well as junior designated hitter Nick Cieri, who started in the middle of the lineup to begin 2015 but missed much of the season after suffering a broken hamate bone last February.
The upgrades to Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium have not only helped the team with sharper preparation over the past several months, but Szefc also said that it has given his players a “good sense of worth” after their success of the past two seasons. The renovation program has added new turf to the entire field — the old surface had natural grass in the outfield — and includes a new drainage system, closed-off bullpens and a rebuilt outfield wall.
That ongoing, three-part project to upgrade the facilities is symbolic of the progress that has been made under Szefc. He stayed at the school to see through the development of the program, hoping it can one day host a super regional of its own.
“My old man used to always say, ‘A lot of people always think the grass is greener on the other side,’ ” he said. “Sometimes it is, and a lot of times it’s not. What I do know is that we have a lot of committed players here, and committed coaches.”