New conference, same goal. Alex reflects on his experience in the BIG10 Tournament in his junior and final season at Maryland.
Tournament time, the time of year that was built off training and preparation from the previous fall and winter season. New conference, new environment, same junkyard dog mentality. We finished fourth in the BIG10 despite a bumpy finish to the end of the regular season. Last year we were in the ACC and lost to Georgia Tech in the championship. We returned with our core from the prior year with a lot of experience and grit while bringing in talented freshmen with a hunger that fit our culture. Despite not finishing the season as strong as last year, we felt we were the team to beat in the BIG10. The BIG10 Championship was being played at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota home of the Twins. I was excited to play in a major league stadium, sit in the bullpen, and pitch on the game mound. The hotel we stayed at was in downtown Minneapolis, within walking distance of the stadium. Upon arrival to our rooms, we had a congratulatory gift waiting for us from the BIG10 for making it to the tournament. We received shirts, backpacks, and pullovers that had the BIG10 logo on them. It felt like we were big leaguers getting the royal treatment. It was a great experience even more so because my dad flew out from New York to be there for the tournament. He’d come to as many games as he and my mom could, but he wasn’t going to miss what would most likely be my last conference tournament.
The schedule came out for the tournament and as a four seed, we opened against the fifth seed, Michigan State. Our games were slotted for an 11 pm start time so our days were going to be structured a little differently than normal for the next few days. The routine would stay the same, we would just wake up and go to sleep a little later. Breakfast became lunch for most of us, waking up around 11 am to noon before having to be on the bus to go to lift by 2 pm. After lift we would come back to the hotel and relax for a few hours as we ate lunch. Around 6 pm we would have our scouting meeting followed by heading over to Target Field for batting practice. Due to the field being used by the teams playing before us, we took batting practice in the tunnels underneath the stadium. We’d be on the field by 10 pm ready to stretch and throw, finishing with infield, outfield, and a team prayer. I remember the first time walking through the tunnel onto Target Field, I was in complete awe. I had been in the stands for so many different MLB games, but to jog out of the tunnel onto the field with your spikes chattering up the concrete steps was just indescribable. The grass was cut fresh like a golf course’s first cut and there wasn’t a spec of dirt out of place. The backdrop of the ballpark was downtown Minneapolis which included countless buildings and Target Center, home of the Minnesota Timberwolves. I had energy I didn’t know I had when I stepped on that field. It was a taste of what the future could hold for me, and I loved it.
After beating the fifth seed Michigan State 2-1 we were slotted to play the BIG10’s top seed, Illinois. Illinois had been on a 27-game win streak coming into the second round of the BIG10 tournament. They were a favorite to host a regional in the NCAA tournament and had a lot of the same characteristics as our 2014 team that went on a deep run late in the post-season. They could hit, pitch, and defend while having experience, youth, and a lot of projected MLB prospects. We cheered when we found out we’d be playing the Fighting Illini. We felt that their run of 27-games was enough and that our storyline was going to trump theirs. After a gritty and gutsy 9 innings the Terps took down the top seed and we were onto the next round. The last team we had to beat to get to the BIG10 Championship was six-seed Indiana. Just a few weeks ago we had been swept by the Hoosiers at home in College Park, but the regular season was over, and we were 3-0 going into this game. We proved our resilience and short-term memories by beating Indiana 4-2 and set our eyes on the Championship game.
Back-to-back years we found ourselves in our conference championship. Last year we were in the ACC Championship and lost against Georgia Tech. This year we were in the BIG10 Championship against the team the “experts and analysts” predicted we would face, Michigan. The feelings that we had leading up to our series in Ann Arbor earlier in the season came rushing back, but this time we felt like we had something to prove. With our blue-collar mindset and chips on our shoulders, we couldn’t wait to play the coach that recruited many of us and a chance to prove that the series in early March was a fluke. From the first pitch, the intensity was blaring from both dugouts. The alpha in each of us came out and we were ready to do whatever it took to win that game. Michigan had a 4-3 lead going into the ninth inning and we were unable to manufacture the game-tying run. With the final pitch thrown, for the second straight year, we had come up short of our goal of winning the conference championship. The thoughts of “what if” came into our minds but we were a resilient group that knew we still had more baseball left to play that season. With the disheartening loss, we packed our bags and returned home to College Park where we would find out what NCAA Regional we were going to be placed in during the Selection Show.