It was April 1st, and the Rice Owls were dying. At 9-20, one of the prestige names in college baseball was saddled with a record that was best described by the baffled and occasionally dumbfounded facial expressions of the fans in Reckling Park. By his own admission, Rice head coach Wayne Graham had never had a season like this in his 25 years running the ship of Owl baseball.
No excuses were made, but logical explanations were offered. While many college baseball teams across the South spend their early nonconference sharpening their blades against smaller and weaker competition from the frozen Northeast and Midwest, the Owls had the University of Texas, Texas Christian, Stanford, Dallas Baptist, and Texas A&M. Graham described it as a trial by fire. The occasional scores in losses were baffling lines like 12-4, 13-5, and 16-6.
Much was learned on what it took for the Owls to play winning baseball, but the flames from their schedule left their won-loss record as a pile of ash. By season’s end the Owls had played four ranked team who were not Conference USA opponents.
Beyond competition, it often seemed like the Owls were simply cursed, as if their 25 years of being a power had finally accrued too much bad karma on the opposite end. Balls were hit hard, but right to the gloves of fielders, errors, both stressed and unforced, led to lopsided innings that doomed the Owls to entire games of playing a desperate game of catchup. Injuries and absences manifested themselves; pitcher Ricardo Salinas went down early, jostling the pitching rotation, first baseman Darryn Sheppard missed all of Fall Ball, forcing him to find his timing and swing in-game on the diamond rather than the more forgiving fields of November and December.
More than once, it was an individual performance from the opposing team that sunk the Owls. During an early April series against a Louisiana Tech Bulldogs team that had been having in-conference issues of their own, the Owls were blindsided by the red, white, and blue supernova known as Raphael Gladu, who went 6-12 in three games on his way to leading the Bulldogs to 2-1 series win and later claiming the Conference USA title in batting average at .381 and being named First Team All-Conference.
The smallest blips of hope persisted. In the midst of their early spring skid, the Owls thumped the then number-14 ranked University of Houston Cougars 9-0. A week later, after Gladu and the Bulldogs had left town, Rice downed the Cougars 4-3 on a Ryan Chandler walk-off hit that became affectionately known as the ‘Miracle at the Medical Center.’
A week later, the Owls traveled to Bowling Green, Kentucky, played three games against the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers, and left the Commonwealth with their first three-game sweep of the season.
“It all connected when we were at Western Kentucky,” said senior outfielder Charlie Warren.
The next week, they took two of three from the University of Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners, then a week later, they swept the University of Charlotte 49ers.
“I just felt like everybody started hitting well. Our pitchers started throwing strikes. Everything was clicking,” said Warren.
With the regular season Conference USA title out of reach, the Owls shifted their focus to a full ahead mad dash to make the conference tournament, which was not a given eventuality in the early darkness of their season. In their final 20 conference games, the Owls went 13-7 to finish 16-14 overall in conference and cemented themselves as the sixth seed in the Conference USA tournament.
“What we’ve gone to and started doing was just giving everything we have every single game,” said backup catcher Robbie Lammons. “At the end of the game we don’t want to leave the field wishing we would have done this or wishing we had done that. We have to do it on the field now. It’s survival time, and we have to do everything we can to win a ballgame.”
“We’ve got a lot of determined people, especially on this coaching staff. Clay van Hook, Scott Shepperd, John Pope. They’re very determined,” said Graham. “They don’t want us to lose. So they’re going to do everything humanly possible to win. They keep the team believing in themselves and fighting.”
The sheer power of positive thinking amounted to enough for the Owls to salvage what had looked like a lost season, and along the way allowed for genuine improvement. The Rice pitching staff eased itself from revolving door to one with a semblance of order. Freshman right-hander Matt Canterino, who struck out 89 batters in 79 innings pitched, was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team.
In the style of the Rice pitching staff’s bend but don’t break method, sophomore righty Kendal Jefferies emerged as the go-to man for nearly every pitching need. Jefferies, the Swiss Army Knife of Reckling Park, started three games, appeared twenty total times, went 2-1 with two saves, all the while appearing in 26 games as an infielder about town.
“It gives you a role, and it gives you confidence. When I got out there, I feel like we’re going to be in the game no matter what,” said Jefferies. “It gives you energy and the atmosphere of ‘this is really fun and we’re going to come back.’ Say we’re down, there’s always a thought that we might come back.”
The shift in mindset from going down with the ship to happily going along at ramming speed allowed the Owls to make something of their regular season, even if it was slated to go down as one of the more bizarre in Reckling Park annals.
“It’s pretty incredible compared to where we started at,” said infielder Tristan Gray, who missed games in the early part of Rice’s season, but returned around the midway point to hit .296 with 31 RBI and four home runs. “Things didn’t go our way during the beginning of the season. But everybody stuck together. We knew how good we were, and now we’re just putting it together. It’s been awesome to be a part of this ride.”
Finishing the regular season at an out-of-character 27-29, Wayne Graham insisted that he had never lost sight of what he thought his team could be.
“We get into the tournament and anything can happen. We’re playing as well as we’ve played all year. For sure. We have a solid lineup now,” said Graham. “I expect that to happen. Everyone says I’m the eternal optimist.”