When the final out was recorded in Maryland’s 4-0, Feb. 16, 2018 win over Tennessee, it was the period on the perfect script.
Terrapin ace Taylor Bloom pitched seven dominant innings, scattering six hits while striking out nine batters without issuing a walk. Second baseman Nick Dunn, entering the season as one of the Big Ten’s top draft prospects, showed his star power, going 2-for-3 with two walks and two home runs. Junior all-conference outfielder Marty Costes recorded a pair of hits in five at-bats.
And first-year head coach Rob Vaughn, after spending five years on the staff of former coach John Szefc, led the team to victory in his first game at the helm.
Everything was there. Pitching, offense, an errorless contest, and the new coach grabbing a road win at an Southeastern Conference school.
The feel good story didn’t last long, as Maryland’s 2018 went every which way except what was to be expected on paper.
Heading into the 2018 season, Maryland was a consensus pick to finish among the Big Ten’s top three, ticketed for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament. Alongside Bloom, sophomore left-hander Tyler Blohm, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, spearheaded the rotation. Dunn and Costes were to make up the heart of a deep lineup, surrounded by the likes of shortstop A.J. Lee and outfielder Zach Jancarski. Lee was an All-Big Ten Third Team selection in 2017, while Jancarski batted .325 with 17 home runs.
On paper, there was a lot to like about Maryland, the rotation, the veterans in the field, the power potential and enough speed to keep opposing pitchers on their toes. It all appeared to be there. And with Vaughn’s knowledge of the programs and players, having recruited them and serving as their hitting coach, the high expectations didn’t seem out of hand, even for a first-year coach. But in hindsight, that familiarity, as well as it served him to take over the Terrapin program as one of Division I baseball’s youngest head coaches, may have ultimately hindered the team’s on-field success.
“I think as a coaching staff, that’s where I really dropped the ball, and I wish like anything I could take it back for that group of seniors and juniors that left,” Vaughn said, as a 24-30 season saw Maryland fall well shy of preseason expectations. “I think you had such a group that you look on paper and think, you know what, they have been through the ringer, I’ve busted those guys up for three years, I can be a little lighter on them, I can kind of pull the reigns back a bit because they’ve got it…and then when we got punched in the mouth in March, we had no idea how to respond to adversity, no idea how to pick ourselves up and grind through something.”
Instead of participating in a regional for the fourth time in five seasons, Maryland’s season ended before the Big Ten Tournament started. A 9-14 record in conference play produced way to a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten table. In an up-and-down year, which never saw Maryland garner any traction, there wasn’t a guide for Vaughn to fall back on. As the team took their lumps, it was Maryland’s first losing season since 2011, when current Michigan head coach Erik Bakich oversaw a 21-35 season, so too did he, learning the nuances of being a head coach and how to lead an entire program on and away from the diamond.
“As a young coach, one of the biggest things I had to learn was balancing different things,” said Vaughn, who at age 30 was named the eighth head coach in program history. “Me and Coach Szfec aren’t the same person, we manage people differently, we lead a bit differently.
“I was kind of caught in this place last year, where it was like, I worked with the hitters for five years, that’s all I’ve ever coached, those are my guys, to trying to figure out what does my role actually look like. Am I the CEO type? Am I the still the guy that coaches the hitters? What exactly does that role look like, and there’s honestly some growing pains with that because I felt like I was trying to find myself.”
Heading into a second offseason leading the program, to go forward Vaughn realized he needed to take a step back.
“I kind of got back to what I’m super passionate about and the reason I got into this in the first place. It’s not to be a CEO, it’s not to sit at the top and watch other people coach; I love recruiting, I love coaching hitters, I like being on the field every day.
“I think I listened to a lot of people last year where it’s like man, as a head coach you have so many responsibilities, you’re just not going to have time, this and that. Frankly, you find time for what you really care about. For me, a big piece of it is getting back to the stuff I love.”
Although the team may not have reached its full potential, a .243 average bettered only Penn State’s .233 clip and the team pitched to a 5.28 ERA, Dunn did bat .330 with 17 doubles and 10 home runs, Jancarski and fellow senior Kevin Boindic batted .279, Costes reached base at a .382 mark with six home runs, and Bloom logged 79.1 innings.
All of those players, each a three or four-year starter, are gone. With a roster off 22 underclassmen and seven transfers, Vaughn’s hand was almost forced for him to get back to being more hands on.
Sometimes the obstacles in front of us provide the way forward.
“The first week, we didn’t even get on a baseball field, we spent it in the classroom,” Vaughn said. “We actually took them down to D.C. one day, did some stuff in D.C. one morning from a conditioning standpoint. Just really try to get them to understand that we’re not a program that’s going to compare our success based on going to Omaha or not going to Omaha, it’s about developing people. At the heart of it, that’s what we want to be about. I think the byproduct of that is you’ll get guys that will run through a wall for you, at this level you end up winning a ton of games.”
With a better understanding of how to lead a program of young men and finding a balance with hitting coach Justin Swope, Vaughn feels everything he and the team went through last year will only make them tougher, closer and ready to rebound in a big way.
“I think I learned a ton, I had a ton of growing pains last year. But it’s been really good with this group of freshmen, combined with our sophomores, our freshmen last year, sophomores this year. (Justin) Vought, (Randy) Bednar and those guys, that left them with a really sour taste in their mouths. They weren’t the guys that said screw it, I’m going to go transfer somewhere else, we gotta make this thing right. So those guys have seen how it’s been done when we weren’t firing on all cylinders, when we weren’t going about our business the right and those guys have been bound and determined to not let it happen again. Between those classes and having a few really, really impact seniors back this year, it’s been really fun to get back to coaching those guys up the way we want to do.”
The way they want to. Now it’s time to get back to that script.