On Wednesday, March 12, within minutes of each other, the NCAA and the Big Ten ended the season for all spring sports, including baseball, due to concerns over the impact of the mounting COVID-19 pandemic.
Head coach Rob Vaughn and the Maryland baseball team left College Park early Wednesday, beginning their journey to Dallas, Texas, ahead of their biggest regular season contest: a weekend series against TCU.
But rather than shuttle the team to practice after the plane landed, Vaughn and his fellow coaches had to gather the group in a hotel conference room and discuss the news that their 2020 season was over before conference play had even started.
In that moment, and now, months later, Vaughn’s message to his team was simple, real and authentic.
“It happened so fast,” Vaughn said. “There are no words. Sometimes I feel like words get int the way in situations like that.”
Vaughn has since told his team not to be “superheroes” and to follow the state-by-state guidelines, listening to health officials. He’s also pushed his players to use their time without baseball to work on themselves and focus on academics.
“Don’t use this to stress about the baseball stuff,” Vaughn said, “use this to better yourself as a person in some way, shape, or form.”
Over two months later, the Terps have been adjusting to a different way of staying connected. Early-on, once the team had all returned home or to their apartments in College Park, the Terps tried an all-team Zoom session, experimenting with different ways to remain in touch and maintain the group’s bonds.
“The reality is, when you get 50 people on a Zoom call it’s a zoo,” Vaughn said. “Nobody’s paying attention, like your eyes just glaze over.”
After that initial video chat, Vaughn and the other coaches have changed their approach. Rather than risk getting “zoomed out,” as Vaughn put it, they’re meeting in smaller, targeted groups based more on personal interests. Shortstop Ben Cowles has been talking with assistant coach Matt Swope about his hitting, while pitcher Sean Burke and pitching coach Corey Muscara are working on Burke’s breaking ball, all via video chat.
More recently Vaughn heard from senior pitchers Tyler Blohm, Elliot Zoellner and Zach Thompson, all of whom will be returning for their final year of eligibility in 2021, a result of the NCAA Division I Council’s ruling that spring sport seniors would receive an extra year of eligibility.
While there remain many unanswered questions, including topics like roster management and how eligibility will be funded, Vaughn is happy to have three veteran arms back on the mound for what he believes will be an exciting season, in part as a result of MLB’s five-round draft.
“You’re going to see the most loaded college baseball around the country that you’ve ever seen,” Vaughn said. “I think across the landscape you’re going to have more high school kids get to [college] and more juniors staying in school…I think the landscape of college baseball one year doing [a five-round draft] is going to drastically change from here on out.”
For Maryland specifically, Vaughn is sticking to his mantra of treating each day as the most important, not making any one day, game or practice more special than the rest.
“It’s just more a sustained thing,” Vaughn said. “It’s great we have returning guys, but can we behave like winners and make decisions like winners for 60 days in a row. It’s not east to do but that’s going to be out biggest challenge [next year] and I’m excited.”
Like so many, Vaughn is taking it day-by-day, valuing the time he’s able to spend with his family and the interactions he’s having with his athletes, even if it is through a screen.
“I’m excited,” Vaughn said. “I don’t even care about the 2021 season, I’m just excited to get back out and take batting practice…try to strike out guys out every day. That’s what I want to do.”