HOUSTON (CBS-Houston) – They have earned the reputation as one of America’s top collegiate baseball teams and the rankings for the upcoming season are certainly a reflection. The Rice Owls have been picked to finish first in the annual Conference USA head coaches poll and they’re also ranked number 6 nationally by Baseball America in the 2012 preseason national rankings.
They have the pitching, the hitting, the resources, a good schedule, and a Hall of Fame coach in Wayne Graham who is eager to begin the new season. All he could think about Friday morning after getting dressed and having breakfast was the very first practice of 2012.
“Let’s go get ‘em – got to get ready!” Friday was a beautiful day at Reckling Park in Houston, Texas – not a cloud in the sky. Graham is entering his 21st season as Head Coach of the successful Rice baseball program, but his 32nd as a collegiate head coach. That’s called tenure!
When asked if he (Graham) made a special request for such beautiful weather, he delivered a response that only a crafty veteran coach of his caliber could do.
“Well you get a little older, sometimes the Good Lord cooperates. You know he feels for ya!”
OWLS ARE LOADED
Graham knows he has an experienced team that was battle-tested last season. Last spring the Owls finished 42-21 and advanced to a NCAA Regional for a 17th-straight year. They were eliminated by Cal in the Houston Regional played at Rice. Cal would move on to the Super Regional. However, that experience will pay off big time for the Owls as this year’s team is a year older and with more savvy, says Graham.
“We feel good about it because we don’t feel like we have many holes and if we can avoid injuries I think we’ll have a solid team all year with good pitching and all the other ingredients too.“
The Owls return 22 experienced lettermen from the 2011 team including eight starters in the field and several veteran pitchers. One such pitcher is sophomore right-hander Austin Kubitza who finished 6-5 last season and was chosen as the Conference USA 2012 Preseason Pitcher of the Year. He was ranked among the top leaders with a 2.34 ERA, 100 innings pitched, and 102 strikeouts.
Pitcher Tyler Duffey, hard-hitting of/if Michael Ratterree and 6’6” outfielder Jeremy Rathjen, all juniors, were selected with Kubitza as part of Conference USA’s 2012 All-Conference Team list of 15.
PITCHING STAFF SIMILAR TO 2003
Kubitza was also selected a third-team preseason All-America selection by both Collegiate Baseball magazine and the College Baseball Writers Association. Add right-handed junior hurler, Tyler Duffey, and that’s two of the four pitchers selected to the Conference USA preseason All-Conference team. Graham recognizes that his pitching staff will be the strength of this season’s team.
“You got (junior, J.T) Chargois in the bullpen and Duffey in the bullpen. So, if anything, we’ve got more depth in the bullpen and similarities in starting pitching to 2003. Of Course, that was quite a staff.”
That was the year Graham and the Owls won the College World Series defeating Stanford 14-2 in game three in the best of three for the National Championship. The staff was composed of sophomore pitchers Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend, Philip Humber and Josh Baker who combined for a 47-5 record.
Closer David Aardsma earned a school-record 12 saves. The season was capped by every starter winning at least one postseason honor while Graham was named the National and WAC coach of the year.
TOP 6 IN NATION; BEST IN CONFERENCE USA
Only Florida, Stanford, South Carolina, Arkansas and Arizona are listed before Rice as the top-ranked teams in the nation according to Baseball America, and ranked 7th by Collegiate Baseball. However, the Owls are considered the best in Conference USA. But Graham knows competition this season will be stiff. While he makes mention of that, he takes a playful jab at the writer of this column.
“Southern Miss seems to get an endless supply of good players,” says Graham. “I guess those backwoods of Mississippi got a lot of players because they find them. And of course Central Florida, UCF, is going to be one of the big powers in college baseball pretty soon – 50,000 students, new facilities, they’re going to be very good. And East Carolina’s always good and Tulane will be good this year too.”
The predicted order of finish for Conference USA sees Rice as number 1, followed by UCF, East Carolina, Southern Miss, Houston, Tulane, Memphis, UAB, and Marshall.
The Owls will be a very good team this season and don’t be surprised to see them make a run at another National Championship.