HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – When a college baseball program has enjoyed as much success as Rice, it’s very easy to understand why they feel this could be a special season. Last spring the Owls finished 42-21 and advanced to a 17th-straight NCAA Regional, but, were eliminated by Cal in the Houston Regional played at Rice.
It’s a fresh start for the Owls who have been picked to finish number 1 in the Conference USA Head Coaches poll. They are ranked number 6 nationally by Baseball America in the 2012 preseason national rankings, number 7 by Collegiate Baseball.
The main reason why is because the 2012 version is much more veteran-like as they return 22 experienced lettermen which include eight starters in the field and several veteran pitchers.
One such pitcher the Owls will rely on this season is senior right-hander Matthew Reckling who finished the 2011 season with a 4-1 record and a 3.10 ERA after 78.1 innings pitched. Reckling feels that he and his class have something to prove.
“This is our 4th year now, and we’re the only class to be at Rice for 3 years and not go to Omaha in the last 10 years, or since their first trip to Omaha. So, we got a little chip on our shoulder. You know we’re going to wish we could have done it before. But, hopefully we’ll make a really good run at it this year – it’ll be worth it.”
Reckling says getting to Omaha is something the team talked about before the season started.
“Definitely so! I think this team has good inner confidence, good leadership and good camaraderie that will hopefully reflect on the field to go with the talent.”
FIRST TRIP TO OMAHA – 2003
The Owls certainly have the talent now. They also had it in 2003 when Head Coach Wayne Graham and his 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.
That 2003 pitching staff, according to Graham was hugely responsible for helping his team get to that World Series. Just listening to Graham on the first day of practice, the feeling is this year’s staff has a chance to be just as dominant.
“On paper it’s the best one since 2003,” says Graham. “It has some similarities to 2003 actually – some good young strong pitchers.”
KUBITZA STARTS IT OFF
Sophomore right hander Austin Kubitza 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. Kubitza was also selected a third-team preseason All-America selection by both Collegiate Baseball magazine and the College Baseball Writers Association.
“It’s a great honor – to know that coaches think that highly of me is great. But, like I said before – it really doesn’t matter to me unless I prove it. I’ve gotten preseason awards and stuff like that. But, it would be nice to get some post-season awards too.”
Even with the honors, Kubitza realized after the 2011 season, he was a bit predictable. Most hitters knew that he was either going to throw a fastball in or slider away. So, it was necessary to make adjustments in the off-season to give himself more options.
“This summer and fall, I really worked on hitting the other side of the plate with the fastball, and then also worked on developing a changeup to add as another weapon for me. It’s not there yet. But, I’m hoping I can at least show it and get it in the back of hitters’ minds and hopefully throw a couple for strikes.”
One thing is for sure: senior catcher Craig Manuel, who hit .309 in 2011, says he enjoys being behind the plate as Kubitza’s battery mate. He says he really enjoys watching him work when Kubitza is hitting the low to mid-90’s with his fastball. What’s it really like catching for Kubitza?
“It’s fun,” says Manuel, “because he never knows exactly where it’s going, I never know exactly where it’s going, and the batter definitely doesn’t know where it’s going. So, it’s fun for all of us.”
BUT IT’S NOT JUST THEIR PITCHING – OWLS CAN HIT
While the Owls will depend heavily on their pitching, Kubitza says that teams might want to take a look at another element of their game.
“Everyone says, all the coaches and the players are saying that pitching is going to be our strong point. But, if you don’t think our hitting is going to be up there then, you’re in for a world of hurt because our hitters are doing really well this year.”
Two in particular are junior outfielders Michael Ratterree and 6’6” fellow outfielder Jeremy Rathjen. Both were selected as part of Conference USA’s 2012 All-Conference Team list of 15. Ratterree co-led the Owls with a .327 batting average in 2011 and while Rathjen finished at .295. Kubitza says these guys can put the bat on the ball, especially Ratterree.
“He can – him, Fuda, Rathjen – I mean it’s going to be an exciting year for our hitters.”
The Owls expect to be a very good team this season and don’t be surprised to see them make another championship run, says senior left-hander, Taylor Wall.
“Every year we’re expected to win a conference championship. That’s the first thing. You know we’ve done it 16 or 17 years in a row. So, that’s the expectation around here. That’s the first thing you know and then hopefully be a national seed at the end of the year so we can host a regional, host a super-regional, and then hopefully get back to Omaha this year where we expect to be.”