For Vaughn, 2018’s obstacles to lead the way in 2019

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.

10 Things to Look Forward to in 2018

The season is finally here. Yes, college baseball returns this week. The last time we saw the Big Ten in action the conference tied its record for most teams in the NCAA Tournament with five. Though no teams reached a super regional, the conference showed it wasn’t a flash in the pan, the success the conference has enjoyed on a national level can be sustained. Now what’s ahead in 2018? Here’s 10 things 10 Innings is looking forward to this season.

The depth of the conference

A year ago, Northwestern and Purdue were coming off of 2016 campaigns where they went a combined 9-39 in Big Ten play. If there were to be easy weekends on an opposing team’s schedule, it was when they were to square off against the Boilermakers or Wildcats. Northwestern had not finished better than ninth since 2010 and Purdue had back-to-back last place finishes after back-to-back next-to-last finishes. Then the season happened and both made the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern finished seventh in the conference at 13-11 with Purdue coming in at eighth at 12-12. Say goodbye to the easy weekends. The top of the Big Ten has flourished with the conference sending 13 teams to the NCAA Tournament over the last three years, but there has been a distinct cutoff from the top to the bottom. Now, with nearly every program having a glistening stadium, staffs hitting the recruiting trail and university athletic departments providing the financial resources necessary to compete, coaches are entering the season raving of the depth of the Big Ten where each team, 1-13, poses as threat and there are no gimmes.

The Dairy Queen Classic

There are a few Big Ten-Pac-12 meetings this season, Nebraska has two games opening weekend against Washington State, before the Buckeyes join the Cornhuskers the following weekend when each play two games against Oregon State and Utah for a second year in a row, and Michigan has a four-game series at Stanford a week after they tangle with Arizona in the Tony Gwynn Classic. But there isn’t a inter-sectional meeting on the calendar like this year’s Dairy Queen Classic, which is doubling as a Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, featuring Illinois, Michigan State and host Minnesota against Arizona, UCLA and Washington. Arizona is two years removed from an appearance in the national championship series, UCLA enters the season as a top-15 team and Washington isn’t a slouch. That three Big Ten teams can play in a tournament of such caliber, take on three solid programs in a home/neutral setting is a boon. And for fans of college baseball, it should be three fun days at US Bank Stadium.

ESPNU Broadcasts

ESPNU will air four games featuring Big Ten teams this spring, providing the conference with more exposure. The quartet of games will spotlight the conference’s regular season and tournament champions from 2017, Nebraska and Iowa respectively, in additional to airing a pair of midweek rivalry games before broadcasting a season finale from Iowa City. Here’s the rundown on games set to air live, nationally, on ESPNU.

Tuesday, April 10, 3 p.m. ET: Notre Dame at Michigan State

Sunday, April 15, 2 p.m. ET: Iowa at Nebraska

Wednesday, April 25, 7 p.m. ET: Indiana at Purdue

Saturday, May 19, 7:30 p.m. ET: Penn State at Iowa

Non-conference intra-conference games

The nationally-televised Indiana-Purdue contest is one of a growing number of intra-conference non-conference games between Big Ten teams. With a nine-week window to play eight opponents, the one-division, 13-team Big Ten conference creates a situation where a team will not play one-third of the conference. This greatly impacts how the standings shape up, winning a title can be more on who you play or don’t play opposed to how good a team is, but it also creates an opportunity. While the Big Ten has garnered more respect on a national level, relative to college baseball’s other power conferences, it still faces the reality of being a conference based in a cold climate. Big Ten teams can be forced to travel for the first month of the season, putting themselves in positions that aren’t beneficial to achieving a high RPI. As Michigan State meets Illinois for two games in Greenville, S.C., and Indiana plays Rutgers in Port Charlotte, on top of the Hoosier-Boilermaker clash in West Lafayette, and Michigan-Michigan State meeting outside of their conference series, Big Ten teams can find a quality opponent in those they are not playing in-conference, while helping the RPI of the conference as a whole.

Michigan’s attempt to reload, not rebuild

Days after Michigan earned its first at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2007, the 2017 MLB Draft saw 11 Wolverines selected. Tying for the most draft picks in the country, in addition to losing closer Jackson Lamb who ended his playing days even though he had a year of eligibility remaining due to a medical redshirt, on paper, it would appear Erik Bakich has a rebuilding effort in front of him. But then again, on paper, Michigan saw quite the influx of talent, bringing in Baseball America’s No. 10 recruiting class, the highest ranked Big Ten recruiting class in Baseball America’s history. How quickly can Michigan’s green but talented newcomers adjust to the speed and skill of college baseball? That answer will go a long way in determining if the Wolverines can earn their third NCAA Tournament berth in four years, or if a 10-year Big Ten title drought will run longer.

Purdue’s attempt to sustain

The last coach to win Big Ten Coach of the Year without guiding his team to the conference crown was Northwestern’s Paul Stevens in 2006. After Stevens led the Wildcats to a second-place finish that season the next 12 seasons saw the conference-winning coach also named its best. But if there was ever a year to break that streak it was last year. A coach whose team finished eighth hardly receives praise, but the job Mark Wasikowski did in reviving the Purdue program was remarkable. Purdue may have only finished 12-12 in Big Ten play, that was a 10-game in-conference improvement over the previous season, and the 12 victories were more than double the six Big Ten games Purdue won in each of the 2013-15 seasons. A year after enjoying the country’s best turnaround, Wasikowski is now tasked with keeping Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament mix, and with the team returning its top seven batters, it’s top-two weekend starters and All-America closer, the sights in West Lafayette are on a bigger tournament.

Minnesota’s grueling schedule

Putting it lightly, the schedule for John Anderson’s club is as tough. The Gophers open the season with a game at Georgia Tech before a doubleheader vs. Kennesaw State, and a weekend-capper at Georgia State. Two weeks later, its the Dairy Queen Classic to kickoff a monster of a March. Minnesota follows the DQC with a series versus Creighton, three games on the road at powerhouse TCU, travel to reigning Big Ten champion Nebraska to start Big Ten play, then host St. John’s for three games during the bye week, a team ranked No. 25 in Baseball America’s preseason poll. The solace that can be found on Minnesota’s schedule is their series against Indiana, Iowa and Michigan State will be played at Siebert Field.

Rob Vaughn molding Maryland

When John Szefc accepted the vacant position as head coach at Virginia Tech, there were few questions on who the next Maryland head coach would be. Those in baseball within the conference and out saw assistant Rob Vaughn as the next leader of the Terps. And so it came to be. Now, after serving as Szefc’s associate head coach, it’s Vaughn’s time to make his mark on a program he has helped transform into a perennial regional threat. Vaughn has been instrumental in recruiting the players necessary to lead Maryland to back-to-back super regionals and three NCAA Tournament trips in four years. One of college baseball’s youngest head coaches, it will now be up to him to lead Maryland to their first Big Ten championship and keep the Maryland momentum moving.

Staff shakeups spur Penn State and Rutgers

Two teams hoping for 2018 turnarounds like the ones experienced in 2017 by Northwestern and Purdue are Penn State and Rutgers. Both Rob Cooper and Joe Literrio are entering their fifth season leading their respective clubs, hoping to take the Nittany Lions and Scarlet Knights to the postseason for the first time in their tenure. Both head coaches experienced staff turnover as Penn State and Rutgers will each have two new assistant coaches this year. Cooper and Literrio have both spoke to the change in culture and environment the programs have experienced this offseason, now it’s time to see how Penn State pitchers respond to the tutelage of Josh Newman, the same for the pitchers at Rutgers under Phil Cundari, and how position players perform with Andre’ Butler’s assistance in State College and Jim Duffy’s in Piscataway.

The return to TD Ameritrade

The 2018 season will be the first of five consecutive seasons where the Big Ten Tournament will be held in Omaha, at TD Ameritrade Park. After setting an NCAA record for single-game conference tournament attendance in 2014, the 2016 tournament made for a solid encore as nearly 10,000 people watched the title game between Iowa and Ohio State. There are still voices out there that believe outside of Creighton home games, the only college baseball games that should be played in TD Ameritrade are those for the College World Series. But for those who are unable to make the trek to Omaha in June, the Big Ten is 2-for-2 in making the final week in May memorable, here’s looking to making it a perfect trifecta.

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