On Friday, with the collective eyes of college baseball turned to Omaha, Nebraska, as the College World Series prepared to get underway, Rice announced former Tennessee Tech head coach Matt Bragga as their new head coach.
Certainly, it was a banner year for Bragga, as he led the Golden Eagles to a 53-12 record and the program’s first super regional appearance. Throughout the postseason, TTU also became something of a darling of the college baseball world, as their high-powered offense and never-say-die attitude, along with some clutch pitching performances, allowed them to upset Mississippi twice in Oxford to win the regional and then put a real scare into Texas by pushing that super regional to three games.
With that said, while the 2018 season is undoubtedly the peak, he’s more than a one-year success story who simply needed to strike while the iron is hot. Under Bragga, the Golden Eagles have won 40 or more games in four times of the last six years, and they also got to regionals in 2009 and 2017. Overall, he compiled 445-383-3 record during his time in Cookeville.
The selection of Bragga comes after a lengthy search during which the Rice administration cast a wide net. TCU pitching coach Kirk Saarloos was an early frontrunner, but not long after TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle re-affirmed his commitment to the program, Saarloss did the same, effectively ending his candidacy. From there, Rice interviewed established assistants at major programs like Bill Mosiello from TCU and Sean Allen from Texas, established head coaches like Bragga and Southeastern Louisiana’s Matt Riser, former Houston Astros manager Bo Porter, and a series of famous Rice alumni in Lance Berkman, Jose Cruz, Jr., Paul Janish, and Norm Charlton, each with varying levels of coaching experience.
It’s easy to see the things that would draw Bragga the opening. The raw materials are in place for long-term success, and things aren’t as bad in the short term as you might think given Rice’s struggles in 2018.
The long term stuff is pretty obvious. Reckling Park is a wonderful facility, Rice’s standing as an elite academic institution will be a draw for a certain type of recruit, Houston is on the short list of best hotbeds for prep baseball talent, and history is on the program’s side. While it’s been ten years since the program’s last trip to Omaha, it’s only been in the last couple of years that the level of play has fallen below that of a quality at-large club.
There’s also some considerable talent on the roster, even if it’s talent that’s not yet been able to put it all together as a team. As has so often been the case at Rice, much of that talent is on the mound. Matt Canterino has been a workhorse in the rotation over his first two seasons on campus, Addison Moss showed flashes in 2018 of being an outstanding complement to Canterino in the rotation, Kendal Jefferies has proven to be a valuable swingman, Garrett Gayle is a flame-throwing reliever who is spending his summer on the Cape, and Zach Esquivel is just one season removed from being a steady starter who led the team in ERA in conference games.
At the plate, Trei Cruz is coming off of a Freshman All-American season, Braden Comeaux hit .319 in 2018, Justin Collins has shown serious power potential, and Dominic DiCaprio will be looking to return to his 2017 form, when he hit .366 with 16 doubles.
This might not be a vintage Rice roster brimming with can’t-miss pro talent, as has been the case in the past, but there’s plenty in place to lead you to believe that a return to the postseason in 2019 isn’t out of the question.
At the same time, there are challenges in equal measure.
For one, they say you never want to be the guy who replaces the legend and there’s a reason for that. Fair or not (and in this case, probably not), his results will be compared to those of Wayne Graham, who put the program on the map. That’s a tough act to follow.
Beyond that, there are things at Rice he’ll have to navigate that he didn’t have to deal with at Tennessee Tech. Entrance requirements at Rice are such that finding high academic achievers among potential recruits is paramount, and once they’re admitted, cost of attendance can be a concern. With a limited number of scholarships to go around, families of recruits often have to consider how they’ll pay for the remainder of the cost of attendance, and at Rice, the remainder is likely to be a significant amount of money.
The biggest challenge, however, is simply the competition within the state. Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Texas, TCU, and Houston are all recruiting at a high level within the state, and that’s to say nothing of programs like Dallas Baptist and Sam Houston State, which have established themselves as regulars in the postseason, and out-of-state programs in the Big 12 and SEC who routinely go into the state to find players. Long story short, recruiting battles are going to be just that, battles.
Time will tell how well Bragga is able to take advantage of the positives while mitigating the affects of the challenges, but if you’re going to bet on a head coach overcoming the challenges, you could do worse than betting on a coach who recruited significant talent, a decent portion of which was just drafted, to an OVC program in the middle of SEC country and then led them to their first super regional.