When left-hander Andrew Miller retired Michigan State second baseman Dan Durkin for the last out of Sunday’s doubleheader, the Maryland Terrapins not only clinched their fifth sweep of the season, but they improved to 18-1 at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium.
Maryland (28-11, 12-3 Big Ten) currently sits atop the Big Ten standings, in large part due to its success at home. In their three conference series’ in College Park this season, the Terps swept Penn State and Michigan State, and took two of three from then-No. 18 Michigan.
In 2014 and 2015 — the last two seasons Maryland reached the NCAA Super Regionals — the team went 21-7 and 16-9 at home, respectively. With just five home games left this season, the Terps have clinched a home-record finish with single-digit losses in College Park for the third time in the last four years. Currently, Maryland is tied for the third best home record in the country.
After finishing 15-16 away from Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium last season — which includes neutral site games — Maryland is 10-10 in such contests this season. But head coach John Szefc believes the difference between his team’s home and away record isn’t because they necessarily struggle away from College Park.
“I don’t think we play bad on the road, it’s just that the results have been a little bit different,” he said. “The home team usually wins 70 percent of the time in college baseball.”
This statistic is consistent with the Terps’ 70-28 record — 71 percent — in College Park over the past four seasons. During this span, Maryland owns a .551 record away from Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium.
Maryland’s tough away schedule is a factor in why the team can’t duplicate its home record on the road. Of the Terps’ 10 losses away from home, seven have come against teams ranked in the top 40 in RPI. The Terps lost a game during opening weekend to Louisville (RPI 6) in Clearwater, Florida, were swept by LSU (RPI 13) in Baton Rouge, lost two of three at Nebraska (RPI 38) and dropped a midweek game at North Carolina (RPI 3). The Terps are currently ranked 25th in RPI.
At home, eight of the Terps 18 wins have come against teams outside the top 200 in RPI — Penn State, Princeton, Saint Joseph’s and Richmond. Overall, Maryland has the 82nd toughest schedule of 299 teams. Even though the Terps’ home schedule has been easier on paper than on the road, there appears to be an extra energy Maryland has when it plays at home, to which Szefc attributes to his “veteran squad.” The numbers led credence to the affect it has on the Maryland weekend rotation.
For the second consecutive weekend at home, Maryland’s starters — Brian Shaffer, Tyler Blohm and Taylor Bloom — all lasted at least six innings. As a team, Maryland allowed just 11 runs in their last six home games against Penn State and Michigan State.
Altogether, that makes the Maryland weekend starters a combined 12-1 with a 1.85 ERA in 102 innings at home. The same trio is 5-6 with a 3.86 ERA in 72.2 innings when pitching on the road.
Bloom says that College Park has become a difficult location to play at as a visiting team, helping not only the pitching staff, but the team as a whole.
“I think we’re a really tough place to play just because of the energy we have in the dugout,” Bloom said. “We just supply the energy ourselves and I think it’s just really hard for teams to come in here and beat us.”
Maryland’s energy in the dugout was present for both games of Sunday’s doubleheader, which featured dancing from senior infielder Pat Hisle, loud “U-S-A” chants after drawn walks and abrupt cheers during a streak of 12 straight balls thrown by Spartan pitchers.
“You have to really respect [the bench] because they’re not sitting there pouting because they’re not playing,” Szefc said. “They’re trying to get involved and help the group win. You talk about why you have that kind of success, well that has something to do with it.”
Not only has the weekend pitching flourished at home, but the offense has followed their lead. Maryland’s bats average more runs, hits, doubles and home runs per game at home than on the road.
Even on the base paths, the Terrapins show more aggressiveness on their own turf. The team is 34-for-45 (76 percent) in stolen base attempts in away games and 48-for-53 (91 percent) in College Park.
“Every day we’re here we bring a lot of energy. Our guys just do a good job of battling for nine innings every time we’re out here and we expect to win every time, especially at home,” outfielder Zach Jancarski said. “It definitely gives our guys a confident boost before the game even starts and I think that’s important, too.”
The Terps are currently on an eight-game road trip and won’t play in College Park again until May 9. In its five remaining home games, Maryland will look to continue making Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium a tough and unenjoyable location for any opponent to win ballgames, says Szefc.
“People don’t want to come in here and play,” Szefc said. “There’s some places we go to that I don’t want to go play at. I think [Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium] is becoming one of those kind of places for opposing teams.”
In the seventh inning of a 4-4 game against Nebraska, cleanup hitter Brandon Gum stepped to the plate for Maryland with a runner on first. Gum liked the first pitch he saw and roped a single to left field, putting two on base.
Will Watson hit next and he too hacked at the first pitch, hitting a line drive just over the outstretched glove of the leaping Cornhusker second baseman. The single to right drove in Marty Costes to give the Terps a lead that they would not relinquish.
Earlier in the game, relief pitcher Ryan Hill had jogged out of the Haymarket Park bullpen and into a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam. He proceeded to escape after allowing just one run.
For the next four innings, Hill mowed down Nebraska’s lineup, throwing a season-high 72 pitches. The right-hander allowed just one run and struck out five Cornhuskers, while Watson and Gum reached base seven times combined in a road victory over a team that had previously been undefeated in Big Ten play.
All three players were instrumental in one of Maryland’s most important wins of the season. All three were playing somewhere else last year. Gum, Watson and Hill, all transfers, have been key pieces all season long on a Terps team that sits atop the Big Ten.
Each member of the aforementioned trio transferred to Maryland before this season, while outfielder Madison Nickens transferred before the 2016 season.
In total, Gum, Watson and Nickens, the three position player transfers, have hit nine of the team’s 38 home runs and collected 65 of its 219 RBIs. All three have been mainstays in the everyday lineup, starting at least 30 times each in 39 games.
Nickens, who came to Maryland from LSU-Eunice, says it’s no accident that the transfers play such a large role on the team. The Maryland coaching staff recruits players that are ready to contribute.
“The recruiting job is really well done,” Nickens said. “They recruit guys they know can fit in right away. And so, when we come, it’s just easy to fit in. We have a role in mind they’d like us to fill once we get here. They recruit us for a reason.”
Head Coach John Szefc expects transfers to come in and contribute immediately, and he has been impressed with how all four on this year’s team have performed.
“They’ve been productive, they’ve been good,” Szefc said. “That’s what you want a transfer to do. You like to have your transfer guys come in and not operate like typical freshmen where it takes them a while to understand things.
“There’s always a maturation process when they come in from one program to another, but you hope because they’re a little bigger, faster, stronger, more mature, with some college baseball experience under their belt, that they can adjust quicker to how our operation works.”
When Szefc and his staff look for transfers to bring into the program, they don’t look players with one specific skillset. Rather, the coaches look for players that will fill a hole on the roster, which is why the ability to play right away is an important quality in a potential transfer.
“It depends on what our need is really,” Szefc said. “It depends on the position, it depends on the need. Hopefully they have good numbers and you’re going to programs that you’ve been to before or you know that they’ve had success pumping out Division I players.”
Hill’s former school, Grayson College in Denison, Texas, certainly fit that description. It’s produced a handful of major leaguers, including active pitchers John Lackey and Mike Bolsinger.
“When [Maryland’s coaches] recruited me, they told me, ‘We’re not going to bring you in to sit the bench and use you every now and then,’” said Hill, who struck out a whopping 12.1 hitters per nine innings in 2016. “’If we’re going to bring in a transfer, we’re bringing them in to get work right away.’”
Hill has gotten plenty of work in his first season with the Terrapins. The 6-foot-1 Texan has pitched in a team-high 18 games. He’s been one of Maryland’s most effective relievers, posting a 3-0 record and a 2.51 ERA across 32.1 innings. Last Wednesday against William & Mary, he made his first start with the Terps, tossing three no-hit innings en route to a Maryland victory.
He also considered transferring from Grayson to Coastal Carolina, but a visit to Maryland during the 2016 season made it clear that he wanted to be a Terrapin.
“Just watching how they want about their practice and it kind of resembled my [junior college],” Hill said. “Everyone was laid back, having fun, but they were getting their work done and getting better each day. It felt like I was going to something I already knew.”
Nickens, who was in his first season with the program at the time, showed Hill around campus. The Terrapins were supposed to have a game, but it was rained out, so Hill and his host got pizza instead.
When the pitcher officially committed to Maryland, Nickens sent him a text welcoming him to the team. Upon Hill’s arrival on campus in August, the elder Terp made sure the newcomer fit in with his teammates, which Hill said boosted his confidence on the mound.
“I feel like when you fit in with the team, you’re more relaxed out there,” he said. “Being a pitcher, when the defense sees the pitcher’s relaxed and has a good tempo and is doing well, then they’re out there relaxed and they’re going to play.”
In hosting Hill, Nickens was in a way paying it forward, as the outfielder had also made his decision after an older player had made him feel comfortable on a visit. When Nickens visited a year prior, Anthony Papio, a four-year Terps outfielder who is now part of the team’s coaching staff, hosted the Louisiana native.
“He was a big part [of my decision to come to Maryland],” Nickens said of Papio. “I was with him, there was an instant connection. He was my roommate the next year, he was a fellow outfielder and I loved playing with him.”
Watson, like Nickens, is a Louisiana native who had previously played at LSU-Eunice. It’s no coincidence that the same school has produced two of Maryland’s four transfers. Szefc was an assistant at Louisiana-Lafayette from 2003-2008 and has a friendly relationship with Eunice Head Coach Jeff Willis.
“[LSU-Eunice] is about 40 minutes from Lafayette, so I’ve watched them play since 2003,” Szefc said. “Whenever we need a guy, I’ll start there and if [Willis] doesn’t have one, he’ll tell me where one is. He’s just a good reference, he knows everything about the Deep South.”
Like his teammates, Watson credits the coaching staff for picking players they know will fit the system Maryland likes to play. He says a “blue-collar” mentality is part of Maryland’s identity and the transfers that come in all have that mindset. Speaking with Szefc and his staff played a key role in convincing the outfielder that Maryland was the place he wanted to play.
“Once I built that relationship with the coaching staff and knew their philosophy, I knew it really fit my skill set and what I can do on the field,” said Watson, who has started 36 games this year and gone a perfect 12-for-12 on stolen base attempts.
Nickens hosted his former Bengals teammate on the latter’s visit to College Park, and Watson called his teammate his “inside man” at Maryland when he was making his decision. The pair ate lunch with the coaches at Looney’s Pub on Baltimore Avenue and later had dinner at Blackwall Hitch in Annapolis, where Watson tried Maryland crab for the first time. He felt the final decision to play at Maryland was an easy one.
“Once I built those relationships with [Associate Head Coach Rob] Vaughn and Coach Szefc and with all the previous success, with going to the Super Regional [in 2015], it was really a no-brainer for me,” Watson said.
Unlike his fellow transfers, Gum took a different route to College Park. Instead of transferring from a junior college, he came to Maryland as a graduate transfer after four years at nearby George Mason. Despite being in the final stages of recovery from shoulder surgery when the season began, Gum has emerged as one of the most reliable bats in Maryland’s order while learning to play first base. Through 34 games, the infielder is hitting .315 with three home runs and a team-high 24 walks and .458 on-base percentage.
The Virginia native said Szefc didn’t have to do much to convince him College Park was the best place for him because Maryland had been his “number one choice” going into the process. Once he made the decision to continue his career with the Terps, he was able to tell his mom that he would be playing in her home state.
“She was really happy because she’s from Maryland and I always made jokes about the Maryland flag and how they’re obsessed with it,” Gum said of his mother, Betty. “Now she loves that I have to wear it on everything.”
The team’s most senior member said it hasn’t been difficult to fit in with his new teammates. At least one of them has trouble remembering a time when he wasn’t a Terp.
“I feel like it was a quick transition once I was able to get back on the field after recovering from surgery,” Gum said. “I was hitting with [Zach] Jancarski one day and he made some comment about two years ago and I was like, ‘Man, I wasn’t here.’ He was like, ‘Dude I keep forgetting, I feel like you’ve been here all three years I’ve been here.’”
Watson, too, has not had any trouble meshing with the rest of the team. He hinted at another reason transfers are able to have so much success immediately: the rest of the team is full of accepting players who are able make newcomers feel comfortable as soon as they arrive.
“The chemistry is really good, I mean we’re all best friends,” Watson said. “We all live in the same apartments, we’re all best friends with each other, joking around and doing a bunch of fun stuff.”
The team has had fun on the field, as well, racking up 28 wins, including seven straight victories. Much of that success comes from the players who have found a new home in College Park.
After Maryland third baseman AJ Lee hit a two-run homer in the sixth inning Sunday against Penn State, his teammates joked about his power in the dugout.
According to the sophomore, his teammates poked fun at him saying, “You won’t hit another one,” to which Lee responded with, “We’ll just see what happens.”
Two innings later with Maryland up 13-2, Nittany Lions right-hander Eric Mock delivered a 2-0 fastball to Lee, who put another good swing on the ball. In almost exactly the same spot as the first — just to the left of the towering center field batter’s eye — Lee hit his second home run of the day to extend the Terps’ already huge lead.
“When I got back in the dugout, they were all shocked,” Lee said. “They couldn’t believe it.”
They were so surprised, in fact, they decided to give Lee the silent treatment, pretending like nothing had happened, as if the infielder hadn’t just hit his second homer of the day and fourth of the year.
“Well they like to say I don’t have a lot of power, that I’m more of a speed guy just to get on base and use my legs,” Lee said, smiling. “So when I hit a couple they like to say it was a fluke or it was wind-aided or something like that. I tried to play it off like people weren’t giving it to me, but it was fun.”
Lee, who hit in the nine-spot all weekend, led a bottom of the order that helped the Terps to a 4-1 record last week, including a win over West Virginia and a three-game sweep of Penn State.
With Maryland down 4-0 in the sixth inning against West Virginia in College Park on Tuesday, the bottom of the order stepped up to lead the Terps’ rally. Hitting in the seven-hole, left fielder Madison Nickens hit a two-run shot far over the wall in right field to cut the deficit in half.
The Mountaineers answered back with a run in the top of the seventh, but Danny Maynard — who entered the game in the fifth inning in the last spot in the lineup — homered off the light pole in left-center to leadoff the bottom half of the frame, again cutting the deficit to two. After the middle of the order tied the game, Nickens lined a bases-loaded single through the left side of the infield, driving in two to give the Terps a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
In the win, Maryland’s bottom of the order — the seven through nine spots — drove in four of the team’s seven runs, including the winning tally. This offensive production carried over into the weekend against Penn State, predominantly in the series finale.
Nickens, Nick Cieri and Lee started Sunday in the seven, eight and nine spots, respectively, to round out the Terps lineup, which looked to complete the sweep.
The trio at the bottom of the order went 8-for-12, leading the team with six RBIs and nine runs scored in Maryland’s season-high 19-hit performance.
“[That’s] what drives our offense,” said right fielder Marty Costes, who recorded four hits and five RBIs Sunday in his usual three-spot. “We’ve been an offense that predicates ourselves on being deep one through nine and if our bottom of the order can do that then it’ll force a lot of teams to rethink their strategy.”
Rounding out the bottom of the lineup was Lee, who like Costes, recorded four hits and five RBIs. While he hit two home runs to double his season total, head coach John Szefc was more impressed by another at-bat.
Maryland led 5-1 in the third inning when right-hander Dakota Forsyth recorded the first two outs of the inning. After giving up runs in each of the first two frames, the Nittany Lions looked to have a shutdown 1-2-3 inning.
But with two outs, the bottom of the order came up starting with Nickens, who drew a 3-2 walk. Cieri singled on the very next pitch, drawing Lee into the box. After battling and working the count to 2-2, the sophomore third baseman singled up the middle on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, collecting the two-out RBI.
“That’s a dagger — a mental dagger to them,” Szefc said. “They think they’re getting out of that inning and then all of a sudden the bottom of our lineup is forcing them to struggle more.”
After his 4-for-4 day, Lee’s batting average climbed above .300 through 35 games this season, much to the pleasure of Szefc.
“I hope it’s a really good step in the right direction,” Szefc said. “Sometimes it takes a while for guys to get comfortable and he’s playing a new position. There’s a lot of [work with the coaches] that goes into that.”
With strong production coming from so far deep in the Terps lineup, Costes has high expectations for the rest of the season.
“If we can get that performance out of him consistently throughout the rest of the year,” he said, “I don’t see a team that can beat us.”
In the midst of three consecutive weekends on the road to start the season, Madison Nickens and Will Watson will reunite with friends, family and former teammates during Maryland’s upcoming series against LSU.
Even though the Terrapins will spend the weekend more than 1,000 miles away from College Park, LSU’s Alex Box Stadium will play host to a homecoming for the two Louisiana-native outfielders.
Nickens grew up in Gonzales, La., just 35 minutes south of Baton Rouge, and Watson hails from Monroe, La., about three and a half hours to the north. But the two outfielders aren’t just linked by their home state. The two played together for one season at LSU-Eunice, a junior college located 90 minutes west of Baton Rouge. That Bengals team went 49-10 en route to a 2015 NJCAA National Championship.
Click on the stars in the map for more information.
But Nickens and Watson won’t be the only members of that National Championship team to play at Skip Bertram Field this weekend. Former Bengals Nick Coomes and Jordan Romero both transferred from LSU-Eunice down Route 190 to LSU following the 2015 season.
“We’re excited to see each other,” Watson said. “We went through a lot in junior college. We won a National Championship together so obviously it’s going to be good to see them and play against them.”
Coomes has played in three of the Tigers’ four games, collecting one hit, while Romero has yet to see action.
Listen to Madison Nickens and Will Watson (at the 34-minute mark) talk about returning to Louisiana on the Maryland Baseball Network Podcast.
Nickens never considered joining Coomes and Romero to go to LSU. He was initially recruited to Maryland head coach John Szefc, who has ties in Louisiana after his tenure as the head assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette from 2003-2008.
On a visit to Maryland, former-player and now student assistant coach Anthony Papio hosted Nickens, who said he felt he had found himself a second home in College Park.
“You come on a visit up here [and you] get the feeling of a blue-collar atmosphere and it’s just kind of how I’ve grown up,” Nickens said. “We’re really a bunch of grinders here.”
While Nickens left the Bengals for the Terps, Watson remained with LSU-Eunice through the 2016 season and hit .312 with 11 doubles, four home runs, 21 stolen bases and 40 RBIs. That Bengals team was ranked first throughout most of the regular season, finishing with a 51-6 record, but falling just short of a second-straight title.
Watson’s breakout season caught the attention of the Maryland coaching staff, who then began to recruit him. During that time, Nickens was having a strong season of his own in College Park. He started 54 games for the Terps as junior, hitting .260 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs. Watson, who became intrigued by his former-teammate’s success, began asking Nickens about the program.
“[Nickens] didn’t have a bad word to say about it,” Watson said. “Once I got here I kind of saw what the coaches were like during practice and during the games and really got to see how they interact with the players. I really noticed this perfect place for me to fit in.”
Watson’s transition from junior college proved to be successful in his first series as a Terrapin. Last weekend in the Clearwater Tournament, the outfielder started two of the three games, collecting two hits, two walks and a stolen base.
“He’s a quiet guy, but he’s a confident guy,” Szefc said. “He certainly has enough skill to compete at the level we’re asking him to and I think he just fit right in and did his thing.”
Nickens and Watson have both found a second home in Maryland, but this weekend, the pair of outfielders will return to their birthplace where familiar faces will be waiting.
“A lot of my friends go [to LSU] so I know they’re excited to come see me play,” Watson said. “All my family is coming so it’s a big deal for me to just to get there and then try to perform at my highest level in front of a big crowd.”
Both have played at Alex Box Stadium before, during various high school games and showcases growing up. Both, too, grew up as LSU fans.
“Any Louisiana boy would be lying if he said he didn’t want to be an LSU Tiger when he was younger,” Nickens said on the MBN Podcast. “But that’s when I’m a little kid; that’s who I grew up watching.”
Alex Box Stadium, which set then-record of 12,373 fans during the 2013 season-opening game against Maryland, could yield upwards of 10,000 people this weekend. The field is surrounded on all sides by fan seating, creating an atmosphere that Szefc is looking forward to testing his team in.
“Obviously if we want to do well in the postseason, the NCAA tournament, we try to put our guys in that atmosphere as much as we can,” Szefc said. “Playing there is definitely that kind of atmosphere.”
While Watson and Nickens are excited to reconnect with friends and family during their time down to Baton Rouge, they both recognize the tough test the team faces in not only playing at Alex Box Stadium, but against an LSU team that is ranked No. 5 by D1Baseball.com.
“This is a big series for us and definitely one that we need to hit strong in to come away with a big series win down there in Baton Rouge,” Watson said. “It’s going to be fun playing in front of friends and family, but obviously we have some work to do.”
Of the eight freshmen that joined the Terps roster for 2017, one is a 2016 Major League draft pick, and one is a walk-on.
Freshmen LHP Tyler Blohm, who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2016 MLB Draft, and infielder Barrett Smith, who earned a roster spot this fall, were vital members of an Archbishop Spalding team that won three consecutive Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference Championships.
Smith was second on the Cavaliers with a .444 batting average, and led the team with 14 doubles and 32 RBIs. But, the infielder wasn’t sure he’d play college baseball after missing a summer of baseball due to Tommy John surgery prior to his junior year—a crucial recruiting period.
Blohm, meanwhile, was named the 2016 Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year after posting a 9-0 record with a 0.74 ERA, striking out 103 in 66 innings.
“You could tell [Blohm] was going to be a special player from a very young age and he fulfilled his potential for sure at the high school level,” Archbishop Spalding Head Coach Joe Palumbo said.
The two have been playing together since they were twelve-years-old, from Severna Park, Md., to Archbishop Spalding, and now, in College Park, Md.
“Coming onto a team where I really didn’t know a lot of people, it’s nice to always have Barrett [Smith] there to talk to,” Blohm said.
For Blohm, it was a forgone conclusion that he’d be playing baseball past high school, whether at Maryland or professionally. The left-hander signed his National Letter of Intent to join the Terps in November of 2015.
Joining the Terps, however, meant turning down an opportunity to begin his professional career. The southpaw was drafted by his hometown Baltimore Orioles in the 2016 Major League Draft. He was the first player drafted out of Archbishop Spalding under Palumbo.
“It’s absolutely pretty exciting,” Palumbo told The Baltimore Sun. “It’s the cherry on top to a very special season for Archbishop Spalding. Having one of our guys drafted by the hometown major league team is pretty cool.”
Blohm would have been slotted to be drafted much earlier than the 17th-round had he not had a strong commitment to Maryland. The Orioles called him in the fourth round, giving him an offer and fifteen minutes to make a decision. Blohm said the arrival of new pitching coach Ryan Fecteau was a big part of his decision to decline the offer and keep his commitment to the Terps. Still, the Orioles used their 17th-round pick on Blohm, in case he changed his mind.
A little more than a month later, and Blohm officially declared his intent on coming to Maryland.
Excited to become a Terp! Thankful for everything that has come about this past month and can't wait to get started at UMD!🐢🐢
Blohm earned a spot on the varsity team his freshman year, racking up 25 wins in his four-year high school career. His senior season, along with 9-0 record and 0.74 ERA, he held opposing batters to a .142 batting average.
“He was a very good left-handed pitcher, but I don’t think it was until his senior year that it exploded,” Maryland Associate Head Coach Rob Vaughn said.
Blohm—who was ranked Maryland’s fifth-best prospect by Prep Baseball Report—didn’t change much on the field during his four varsity seasons, but says his more dedicated preparation in the offseason between junior and senior seasons turned him into a dominant starter.
“Sophomore and junior year I did just enough, and I think senior year I had a thought process and just said ‘I’m going to go all out and see what happens,’” Blohm said.
Palumbo believes that Blohm’s success on the field is a direct result of the work he put in off of the field.
“His off-the-field work ethic is second to none in my opinion,” Palumbo said.
The Maryland coaching staff shut Blohm down this fall after he threw 66 innings his senior year and 26 more innings in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League this past summer. Blohm went 7-4 with a 2.04 ERA for the league runner-up Baltimore Redbirds, and was named a CRCBL All-Star along with Redbirds and now Terps teammates RHP Hunter Parsons, RHP Mike Rescigno and OF Marty Costes.
“I think that one thing that is pretty certain is that that guy is going to eat up quite a few innings for us this year whether that’s out of the bullpen or whether that’s in a starting role,” Vaughn said.
Smith wasn’t sure he would have the opportunity to play baseball after high school. He had Tommy John surgery prior to transferring to Archbishop Spalding his junior year and lost recruiting time, according to Palumbo. Palumbo believes that Smith’s surgery influenced the path that he took to Maryland because he missed a whole summer of baseball.
Although Smith wanted to play college baseball, he wanted to be happy where he was going to school. He liked Maryland enough to apply by the priority deadline, even though he had never spoken to the coaches.
But, in traveling to watch the Cavaliers and Blohm, Vaughn noticed another player on the field—Smith.
“You had this kid that was an unbelievably great student who really wanted to come to Maryland and every game that I went to, the kid played really, really well,” Vaughn said.
“My goal when I went out there was to have the best day I could, whether that was at the plate or on the field,” Smith said. “I guess I showed that I could put forth the effort to get somewhere.”
Smith was offered a spot this fall to practice and workout with the team, where he earned his spot on the roster.
“[Smith] said ‘I’m going to Maryland, I’m going to be awesome in the classroom and I’m gonna earn a spot,’ and that’s exactly what he did,” Vaughn said.
Palumbo believes that outside of Smith’s baseball skills, it was his willingness to compete and mental toughness that allowed him to adapt to the Archbishop Spalding baseball program and to earn a spot on the Maryland baseball team.
“I think that guys that are willing to work can far exceed expectations, ” said Vaughn.
Now, Blohm and Smith are teammates once again, trading in the white and red of the Cavaliers for the red, black, and gold of the Terps.
“It’s a pretty cool thing to be able to come into the locker room and then two lockers down is Tyler [Blohm] again,” Smith said. “It’s cool to lace up with him right there next to me.”
As the Maryland Terrapins began the 2016 Fall World Series, familiar faces from the Terps’ recent years of success—Kevin Martir and Anthony Papio—looked at one another from across the field.
Now student assistant coaches, the two players who had combined to play more than 300 games for the Terps since 2013 found themselves as opposing managers for the annual split-squad scrimmage series, which is tied at one-game apiece.
Martir, who was drafted by the Houston Astros his junior year, returned to College Park, Md., this fall to finish his bachelor’s degree. Papio, who graduated in August of 2015 and played last season as a fifth-year senior, has remained on campus, finishing his graduate degree.
The former catcher expected to just work out with the team and help out, like he did last year. But Szefc approached him for a more official role. As for Papio, the former outfielder and all-time leader in games played knew he wanted to get into coaching once his playing days drew to a close.
“I kidded Papio…, 27 years ago, I did the same thing,” head coach John Szefc said. “I had one semester [at Drexel] I had to finish up, and I went back and coached and it worked for me.”
Szefc, who coached both players during the Terps’ back-to-back Super Regional seasons, who has been at the helm for the entirely of Martir’s Terrapin career and the majority of Papio’s, instilled lessons in his newest assistants.
“The biggest positive of playing under Szefc was that he was the same guy every day,” Papio said. “He stayed pretty cool throughout the whole game—never too high or too low. I think that’s something that both of us have tried to incorporate while we’re out here coaching.”
Martir, who was a vocal leader on the team during his three years, has taken note of the way Szefc communicates with his players.
When I was a player, I’d be able to scream and get on someone,” Martir said. “Now you have to direct the message you’re trying to tell the player in a different way—so that they can understand and not be mad at you or hate you for something you said.”
Martir’s playing experience behind the plate as a catcher—both at Maryland and in the Houston Astros organization he past two seasons—has helped him convey those messages to both position players and pitchers.
Ryan Selmer posted the above picture of him pitching to his new student assistant coach Kevin Martir to Instagram before the start of the Fall World Series.
“Being a catcher, you’re able to do both,” he said. “You can manage a pitching staff and tell guys about different approaches or anything like that. That’s why while I’m coaching, I’m calling a game—because I’ve been there.”
Szefc had complete confidence in his former players to get the job done as student assistant coaches.
“Personality-wise they’re a little different, but they’re also both pretty demanding too,” he said. “I think they both know how things should be done, so they’re not afraid to get the point across. What you have is two guys that are student assistant coaches, but Papio just finished playing, Martir’s still playing. Those guys know the game and they’re not afraid to open up their mouths and coach it.”
While playing under Szefc taught both student assistant coaches vital lessons, managing the Fall World Series has given both Martir and Papio a newfound respect for what their former coaches do on a day-to-day basis.
“The other day I was coaching third and other guys were missing signs,” Martir said. “[Associate head coach] Rob [Vaughn] was like, ‘well, welcome to my world. Guys are missing signs.’”
But as Martir explained, missed signs are just the beginning of the frustrations of being a manager.
“You can’t really control what’s going on—it’s out of our control,” he said. “While I’m back there I’m like, ‘damn, I want to go and put down a bunt’ but I can’t because I’m on the other side. It’s tough on us too because we can’t really do anything about it.”
Both Papio and Martir have had some fun throughout the process of leading their respective teams during the Fall World Series. The dugouts are loud and active during the game, which is no surprise considering each manager’s competitive nature. The antics continue off the field, with players posting pump-up message to Twitter and Instagram, and Martir sending Papio “a couple of emojis.” It’s clear what’s on the line—supreme bragging rights, for both the players and their former teammates turned coaches.
Getting jacked up to get ready to go get a sweep with Team APaps tomorrow @APapio13
Last season, the Terps went 30-27 en route to a Big Ten Tournament berth. However, Maryland fell in the semi-final to Iowa and was not selected to participate in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, after winning back-to-back NCAA Regionals.
While Maryland’s near .500 record may indicate that the Terps were rightfully left out of the postseason picture, a deeper analysis shows Maryland much more on the bubble. In 2016, Maryland’s non-conference schedule—featuring series at Alabama and Cal St. Fullerton, and a home series vs. Bryant—was the sixth-hardest in the nation. This led to Maryland finishing with an RPI of 60, good enough to squeak into the top-64. But, when factoring in automatic bids from conferences with weaker RPIs, it left the Terps on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in.
Let’s break down Maryland’s 56-game schedule for 2017.
In 2017, Maryland’s non-conference schedule figures to again be one of the toughest in the nation, featuring series at LSU and home against Bryant, in addition to two high-profile tournaments.
This is the continuation of a trend started last season when the Terps’ overall strength of schedule ranked 29th in the nation. No Big Ten team had a tougher schedule, and it was all thanks to Maryland’s arduous non-conference slate.
Maryland’s 2017 non-conference opponents averaged a record of 33-23 last year. For context, just 78 out of 300 teams in 2016 won more than 33 games—that’s the top quarter of division I baseball. These aren’t teams who put together 30-win seasons in weak conferences—eight went at least as far as NCAA Regionals last year.
Series and Tournaments:
The Terps hit the ground running to open their season, playing five of their first ten games against programs which finished in the top-10 in RPI last season. Maryland will spend opening weekend in Clearwater, Florida, facing Ball State, Alabama State (the four-seed in last year’s Tallahassee Region) and Louisville, the fifth-overall seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals, arguably the nation’s most talented team last season, hosted and won their NCAA Regional, tallying a 50-14 record en route to a top-two finish in RPI.
For the fourth time in the last five seasons, the Terps will travel early in the season to take on a high-profile SEC opponent. Exactly five years and one week after Szefc began his Maryland coaching career getting swept by the LSU in Baton Rouge, “The General” and his troops will return to Alex Box Stadium for an early test against the Tigers. LSU fell in last year’s Super Regional to the eventual College World Series champion, Coastal
Carolina, and finished ninth in the nation in RPI.
The following week, in their second tournament of the season, Maryland will play North Carolina State (38-22), Notre Dame and UMass-Lowell. The N.C. State Wolfpack, the toughest opponent of the three, finished 2016 with the eighth-best RPI in the NCAA, and also saw their season end at the hands of Chanticleers, one round before the Tigers.
The Terps welcome the Bryant Bulldogs to College Park for the second-straight year and third meeting in four years. The March series will reunite new Maryland pitching coach Ryan Fecteau with his former team. The Bulldogs had the best record in the nation last year (47-12, .796) but were eliminated by William & Mary, another of the Terps’ 2017 opponents, in the Charlottesville Regional.
Princeton, the four-seed in last year’s Lafayette Region, will travel to Maryland for the third straight odd-numbered year. The Terps handily swept both previous series, outscoring the Tigers 73-15 while tossing three shutouts.
Notable Midweek Matchups:
March 14, at North Carolina (6:00 p.m. ET)
March 21-22, at UNC-Wilmington (6:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. ET)
April 11, vs. West Virginia (4:00 p.m. ET)
March 7 and April 19, vs. William and Mary (both at 4:00 p.m. ET)
While Maryland’s final RPI will heavily emphasize non-conference results, the Terps will need to bolster their resume with positive results during conference play.
Over the past two seasons—Maryland’s first in the Big Ten—the Terps have played every Big Ten team at least once. That means no more surprises, and no more teams Szefc has never faced. Maryland begins its conference slate with three home games against Michigan, one of two 2017 conference opponents they did not face last year. The two teams have played four times during Szefc’s tenure as head coach—including the 2015 Big Ten Tournament Final—with the Terps winning just once. Maryland’s series against Michigan will mark the first time former Terps head coach Erik Bakich will return to College Park since leaving to become the Wolverines’ head coach in 2012.
Maryland begins April with two road series against Rutgers and Nebraska, followed by home series against Penn State and Michigan State. In 2016, Maryland dropped two crucial games to Rutgers to begin their penultimate series before salvaging a 6-0 win on Sunday to avoid a sweep. Under Szefc, Maryland is above .500 against the Cornhuskers (3-0), Nittany Lions (2-1) and Spartans (3-2).
To round out the conference schedule, the Terps will travel to Indiana and Illinois for the first time since joining the Big Ten, then host Northwestern at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium for what could be a crucial final conference series. Maryland is 16-15 under John Szefc against 2017 conference opponents and has beaten each one at least once. Overall, Szefc is 27-21 against the Big Ten.
What it Means:
To understand the impact the Big Ten move had on the Terps’ RPI and subsequent postseason hopes, you must compare 2012, the year before Szefc arrived, and 2015.
In 2012, still a member of the powerhouse ACC, the Terps went 32-24 with a 10-20 record in conference. Their strength of schedule? 22. Their RPI? 33.
Three years later, in 2015, Maryland posted a program-record 42 wins and a second consecutive trip to the Super Regionals. Their strength of schedule? 58. Their RPI? 31.
While the conference switch may indicate a negative impact on the Terps scheduling and postseason hopes, it merely shows how Maryland has adjusted. When in the ACC, the Terps could schedule a weaker non-conference schedule, knowing the ACC gauntlet would bolster their RPI and resume. Now in the Big Ten, Maryland, under the direction of Szefc, has done exactly what they need to do in consistently scheduling a difficult non-conference slate.
A strong showing in conference, combined with a respectable run in 16 games against out-of-conference, 2016 NCAA Tournament opponents, would put Maryland well within striking distance of a return to postseason play.