The man known in College Park as “The Unicorn” isn’t an imaginary creature from deep in the forest.
He’s only the best pitcher in the history of Maryland’s baseball program and part of the Terrapins’ tremendous turnaround in recent years.
Mike Shawaryn is nearing the end of his junior season with the Terrapins, who begin play in the Big Ten tournament Wednesday morning as the No. 6 seed against third-seeded Indiana. His name is firmly planted atop several of the school’s statistical categories, and he could rise to No. 1 in another this week.
And as Maryland (28-25) makes a run at its third consecutive NCAA bid --- something the program has never accomplished --- Shawaryn couldn’t be more pleased with how his belated college decision unfolded.
“People might not see it, but I have no regrets,” Shawaryn said. “I had offers from Vanderbilt, who won a national championship, and I wouldn’t give up anything to go play for them. Part of that is I wanted to be here in all aspects --- education-wise, campus life, baseball. Because of that, I’ve really enjoyed my time here.”
He grew up an exit up the road from the Delaware Memorial Bridge and won throughout his high school career at Gloucester Catholic in southern New Jersey. But a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow cost him his junior season in high school. He was relatively under-the-radar, though then-Monmouth pitching coach Jim Belanger saw him plenty while recruiting Shawaryn’s teammates over the years.
Belanger moved on to Maryland the summer before Shawaryn’s senior year, and the combination of that relationship and Shawaryn’s sudden emergence at an event on the showcase circuit made him a vital prospect for the Terps.
During weekly state-of-the-program meetings, Belanger would update coach John Szefc on Shawaryn’s recruitment. He originally planned to commit before starting his final year of high school. That didn’t happen. Christmas came and went. Still, Maryland waited.
“I always felt good about getting him because we had a good relationship and I knew he wanted to be close to his family,” Belanger said. “The way recruiting works, everyone makes their decision so far in advance. Mike was different. We never had a guy who did it like that. They crossed their Ts and dotted their Is. They made the decision when they were ready to make it.”
It wasn’t until Shawaryn arrived at Maryland that he discovered the staff already tagged him with a nickname.
Little did anyone truly know how appropriate “The Unicorn” was to describe a pitcher who would help change the fortunes of the program --- even if it isn’t exactly a moniker most 18-year-olds would embrace.
“Basically, they would always hear things about me and they’d ask ‘Where’s he at – he’s not going to make a decision now,’” Shawaryn said. “So they were like ‘Is this guy even real. Is he a mythical creature?’ Then the unicorn came about. I didn’t know about it until right before the season. I’ve been called a lot worse things. I just kind of let it happen.”
He immediately slid in as Maryland’s Saturday starter behind senior Jake Stinnett, a high-profile assignment for someone just getting started on his college career.
It was also apparently quickly that it was warranted.
“Our coach had told us a bit about him before he came,” said Stinnett, who now pitches for the Chicago Cubs’ High-A affiliate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. “As soon as he got there, you could see how he prepared every day and how he worked. He was very poised and very mature for a freshman. You could tell right away Mike was going to be a special pitcher.”
He won his first four starts, including his debut against Florida. He held Florida State to a run over 7 1/3 innings in his first conference start. He went on to lead the ACC in victories with 11.
Suddenly, the Unicorn took on new meaning.
“I didn’t think it was going to become this huge thing and then going out, beating Florida my first start, then we came back home for two weekends, beat Florida State, pitched really well against North Carolina,” Shawaryn said. “It was those big-time programs that I was doing well against. It just kind of added fuel to the fire.”
Shawaryn had a perfect mentor. Stinnett had already navigated three college seasons, and the manner in which he carried himself, worked out and went about his business with a purposed impressed the freshman.
There was also the matter of picking up ideas while watching Stinnett pitch on Fridays. Shawaryn would chart those games as Stinnett enjoyed a fine season, then put his knowledge to use the following night.
Meanwhile, one of Shawaryn’s finest traits --- zeroing in and containing damage whenever trouble lurked --- quickly became apparent.
“He always found a way to pitch through adversity,” Stinnett said. “It was pretty special because you don’t see that from freshmen in college. As a senior that year, I was supposed to take him under my wing and teach him some things. I ended up learning a lot from Mike myself, not just the other way around.”
Belanger, a consistent advocate on developing the mental side of the game, was equally impressed. Shawaryn arrived on campus with a fastball that generally sat in the upper 80s. His changeup and slider weren’t quite what they would become the next two years.
Yet there he was, posting a 3.12 ERA in his first season.
“What Mike was really good at his freshman year was slowing the game down and never giving up a big inning,” Belanger said. “A team that can prevent the big inning will win all the time. He is the master of minimizing bad stuff. It can be bases loaded and nobody out and he’ll only give up one run.”
Shawaryn’s ability to embrace all of the sport’s mental challenges has only improved his approach on the mound, and he credits Belanger for streamlining things to ensure they could be easily repeated.
That helped earlier this season when Shawaryn struggled for a few starts, only to figure things out and come on over the final month of the season. That was capped with a complete game triumph at Michigan State last week that helped maneuver Maryland into the conference tournament.
“Baseball’s such a negative sport. When things aren’t going the right way or not going your way, because that’s just baseball, belief in the process and preparing, it gives us a base layer to go back to a comfort zone,” Shawaryn said. “You don’t try to change everything. Obviously, you have to make little changes so you can get back to doing things the right way, but you just have to trust the process and keep grinding through.”
It doesn’t hurt to be a ferocious competitor. Accustomed to winning throughout his baseball life, he’s done plenty of it at Maryland.
In the locker room one day earlier this season, he was struck by just what the Terps accomplished the last two seasons by making back-to-back NCAA Super Regional appearances. Last year’s bunch won 42 games --- the most in school history.
In that context, the accomplishments of the last three years are particularly meaningful on a larger scale.
“My competitive edge, I think it’s a little bit more than average, whether it’s playing a game on Friday or playing Mario Kart in my dorm or shooting trash into a trash can, I want to win,” Shawaryn said. “I would say I almost force that upon my teammates, not to just go out there with the sense ‘this is baseball, it’s a long season’ and just the urgency to win and will to win. As much as this has helped these teams, my freshman year we had a lot of older guys with the same mentality. I think it’s pushed down through this system.”
It’s also got notice elsewhere. Last year, he earned a spot on the United States collegiate national team.
“To put on a USA jersey and play the game you love, that’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Shawaryn said. “Every baseball player should have the opportunity to do that, and especially the experience of putting on a USA jersey for a Fourth of July game. We played against Cuba and there were probably 15,000 people there. I didn’t pitch, but that was one of my most memorable baseball moments I’ll ever have.”
There are more on the way, but his legacy at Maryland is already safe. His 29 career victories are a school record. So are his 291 strikeouts. He needs only to record two outs to become the Terps’ all-time leader in innings pitched (he’s at 298 1/3 now).
It’s set a new standard for the program.
“Getting Mike was a huge steppingstone,” Stinnett said. “It led to more and more recruiting classes that they have been able to get. He definitely led the way.”
For those who want to define the best in program history merely by numbers, Shawaryn has a clear case. For those who defer to team success, Maryland’s return to the NCAA tournament after an absence of more than four decades is compelling evidence.
And while Shawaryn won’t make the argument, he doesn’t hesitate to admit that was his aim when he made his college choice.
“If anybody who comes in the program says they don’t want to be the best pitcher in Maryland history, they’re fooling you or they shouldn’t be here,” Shawaryn said. “That was my goal. I don’t really realize it, but every time I step on the field, I want to be the best pitcher in Maryland history. Does it mean I’m the best pitcher in Maryland history? I don’t know.”
The best Maryland pitcher ever? Quite possibly. The best Unicorn in baseball lore? Most definitely.
And someone whose impact will be felt in the Terps’ program for years to come? Unquestionably.
“You can look at the numbers and look the records, the way he’s carried himself as a person, the type of student he is, the way he treats people,” Belanger said. “He’s what an NCAA student-athlete should be from the student aspect, the person aspect and the player aspect. He’s just a prime example.”
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