As the University of Maryland baseball team gathered in the outfield grass, they could turn and watch the East Carolina dogpile, the celebration underway after the Pirates secured a place in the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship Super Regionals at the expense of the Terrapins.
Maryland had booked a meeting Sunday in an elimination game against East Carolina at the tail end of a breakout season for coach Rob Vaughn’s group. The Terrapins won 30 games for the first time since 2017 — the last year they earned a Regional berth. With 28 regular-season wins, Maryland finished second in the Big Ten, its best conference finish since 1980, when the team still played in the ACC.
But aside from one team, each season ends that way — watching a winner celebrate while another team nurses a defeat. And Vaughn is glad the Terrapins had that opportunity to see the Pirates’ revelry. He envisions his team mobbing the mound in a dogpile in the near future, and this season’s experience can go a long way in achieving that goal.
“It was great for our guys to sit — and as painful as it was to watch ECU dogpile — that was important for our guys to do that,” Vaughn said Monday in a phone call. “Because we’re gonna do that. And when we do that, whether that’s next year or the following year or whenever that is, we’re going to be able to point back to this 2021 team.”
In the four seasons Vaughn has been at the helm of Maryland, he can easily see the strides he and the program have made. In 2018, as a 29-year-old in his first head coaching job, Vaughn admits he was excited and fiery but somewhat ill-prepared for the unexpected curveballs thrown throughout the course of a season.
That year, the Terrapins relied on just nine pitchers, each of whom threw more than 20 innings. They had lost several key players following former coach John Szefc’s departure for Virginia Tech. Vaughn was a young, inexperienced coach in charge of a young, inexperienced roster.
“I can look back now and say, ‘Man, I didn’t know which way was up that year,’” Vaughn said. “It was like drinking out of a fire hose, I feel like. But it was a lot. And it’s almost comical — the fact that we won 24 games is one of the more amazing feats ever, because we didn’t have anything. We were so thin on the mound. Man, it was just a rough, rough first year.”
But those lows helped the Terrapins the coming years, from a .500-campaign in 2019 to a coronavirus-halted season in 2020. Then came 2021, a slow start and a bevy of injuries to key players. Starting pitcher Nick Dean missed the first month of the season due to injury. Catcher Justin Vought missed time, as did outfielder Randy Bednar and first baseman Maxwell Costes.
Those injuries played a role in Maryland’s 10-12 start through the first month. Bednar, though, called a players-only meeting midway through the year, and while Vaughn still doesn’t know what was said, he noticed a change in his squad in the beginning of April.
The Terrapins won three of four against Northwestern and Michigan before losing a series against Nebraska. Over the final two months of the regular season, though, Maryland took off. The team finished the year 18-4 in its last 22 games, winning seven series.
“I’ve always believed the best teams are run by the players, not by the coaches,” Vaughn said. “The coaches are here to help create the environment, to help steer the ship. But when you get players starting to run the team, that’s when the culture shifts and special things happen.”
More adversity struck before the postseason, though, when Maryland lost Dean again to a wrist injury. Center fielder Chris Alleyne fouled a ball off his face in his first at-bat of the Regional, and he missed the rest of the tournament.
Despite those impediments, though, the Terrapins beat Norfolk State and Charlotte before dropping a 9-6 contest to East Carolina — a closer result than a series against the Pirates in 2018, when Vaughn’s team was outscored 26-4 in a sweep on the same field.
“You look from where we were in 2018 to 2021 in a Regional final, with [Clark-LeClair Stadium] rocking and us playing pretty good baseball, they just never quit,” Vaughn said. “I think it’s just very indicative of the culture getting very, very close to what we want this thing to be.”
Maryland’s lineup could look plenty different next season, with decisions ahead for seniors Bednar, Alleyne, Tommy Gardiner and others regarding a potential return for a fifth season of eligibility. There are MLB draft considerations, too, that could result in more turnover.
But regardless of the offseason decisions ahead of several players, Vaughn thinks this was just the start. And before long, he feels it’ll be the Terrapins jumping on a dogpile in the infield while an opposing squad watches on.
“This is where Maryland belongs, man,” Vaughn said. “We belong in the postseason. And we believe we can win in the postseason.”