by Kyle Koso
Some exotic plants spend years in a holding pattern, waiting for the right conditions to flower and express their true beauty.
It’s not an inaccurate way to look at the Maryland softball program, a group whose buds are preparing to burst.
The Terrapins have been bumping around the distant reaches of the Big Ten standings since their arrival in the conference in 2015 and made a gesture to change things up with the hiring of Mark Montgomery away from Louisiana Tech in late 2019. Fresh plans and new procedures were certainly adopted by Montgomery but assessing changes and seeing results proved nearly impossible with the COVID-addled season of 2020 and a 2021 campaign that featured only conference games.
But in 2023, there’s proof that Montgomery and Maryland were onto something. The Terrapins got off to a scorching start and were a handful in the Big Ten as well, closing the regular season with a 36-17 record – looking to cap the season on a title run, the team is the top seed in the 2023 NISC D-I postseason event, which begins Thursday at the Triple Crown Sports complex in Fort Collins, CO.
The Terrapins will start with 10 a.m. MT game against CSUN (28-22).
Montgomery’s mantra of patience turned out to be pretty sage when he took the job, fully aware of the program’s history of struggle but not inclined to totally flush the roster which was filled with dutiful, determined players. Fact is, until COVID’s ripple effects calmed down, there was no purpose in hasty maneuvers.
“First and foremost, you have to go in and embrace what you have. Too many coaches will take a new job and are quick to believe there are more problems than solutions – running old players off or bringing new players in,” said Montgomery, who has 652 wins in 23 seasons as a college coach. “You walk in, see what’s laid out in front of you, embrace the situation. You try to make the players you have the best they possibly can be, and grow from there. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I have to remind myself of that occasionally. We all want it to happen faster than it really can; I was blessed because when I came in, we had good kids.
“They worked hard and left everything they had on the field. Were we as talented as we need to be? No. Did we have as much depth as we needed? Absolutely not. But we’ve been able to acquire pieces and hopefully continue to work with the players we have, make them better.”
Right away in the 2023 season, Maryland showed up as a team that had played its cards properly. At the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge, the Terrapins beat then-No. 22 Oregon and No. 3 Oklahoma State; that was followed with two-game sweeps of Virginia and North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and tournament titles at East Carolina and Liberty.
“I’d say I was pleasantly surprised. There was a knowledge we were good, but I just didn’t know how good,” Montgomery said. “You make additions or subtractions to the roster, the chemistry changes, and there are a lot of pieces moving. It was a matter of, let’s roll the ball out and see how we do. (Puerto Vallarta) set the stage for a successful season, even if it didn’t end quite how we wanted.”
That’s a reference to Maryland playing well in the Big Ten conference slate, just not quite at the level needed to qualify for the NCAA postseason tournament. The tipping point was arguably a five-games-in-five days stretch that saw two losses at Rutgers and two shutouts at the hands of Nebraska, which would eventually claim an NCAA berth.
A couple other losses hurt, and Maryland had to work through some major injury disruptions as well as that funny feeling when you’re no longer the underdog and other teams are coming hard after you.
“A lot of it was beginning to learn to deal with expectations and pressure. The team got off to a good start, was playing well, and we lose a heartbreak at Indiana where we had the game won going to the bottom of the seventh,” Montgomery said. “Then we have a game in horrible weather, it’s miserable, and a flat-out good Indiana team took it to us. Then come the doubts … are we good enough, do we belong, and we had to search for some answers. It took us a while. This team had never had to deal with it before because they’d never been good enough. We had to learn how to be the favorite, or react when we didn’t do well.
“The first two years, there was not a lot of growth there. The last two seasons, it’s been full of growth and development, and how to take the next steps in winning. That’s what the NISC is for us – what we want to do is go there, continue to learn and grow as a program, where we can become a mainstay in the NCAA’s.”
Offensively, the Terrapins have been paced by Jaeda McFarland, the 2021 Big Ten freshman of the year and who has already earned her degree in just three years. In 2023, she’s been a speedy and strong-armed center fielder just like always, hitting .366 with 60 hits, 41 runs and 22 stolen bases – she was Montgomery’s first recruit at Maryland, following him after originally signing up with Louisiana Tech. Sophomore Amelia Lech has been another key asset, hitting 15 home runs to go with 46 RBI and a team-best 29 walks.
Lech barely hit .100 her freshman year, which was cluttered with horrible news from home (deaths in the family) and the classic challenges of being new to D-I softball, but Montgomery credited her for hard work in the offseason that allowed her to fulfill her promise in 2023. Maryland also features, arguably, the best defensive catcher in the conference in Kiley Goff, who also hits .301 – Goff’s father, Greg, is the head baseball coach at Purdue.
Maryland has benefitted profoundly by the work of two senior pitchers, Trinity Schlotterbeck (15-6, 1.90 ERA) and Courtney Wyche (17-9, 2.60 ERA). They’ve combined for almost 300 innings of work and provide day-in, day-out comfort for a roster that knows its pitching will keep them in range while they figure out how to push enough runs across to win on a regular basis.
With the extra COVID year still in their pockets, Wyche will return to Maryland to pitch in 2024 and start grad school. Her educational needs will send Schlotterback elsewhere, however, as she’ll pitch next at Florida Atlantic.
“They both have had some individual struggles, but they’ve done an amazing job,” added Montgomery. “Those two were sitting here waiting when I came in as freshmen pitchers, ready to get after it. Watching them lead our team has been a treat, because it all starts in the circle. They’ve gotten better, and the team has gotten better right alongside.”