The Rice Owls were dead and buried. The team had just lost to Southern Miss by a 17-6 score to fall to 13-25 on the season with just 18 games left. Worse, the team had fallen all the way down to 11th place in the Conference USA standings.
Forget about that streak of 22 straight NCAA Regionals. The Owls were not even going to make it into the conference tournament. That was quite a blow for a team that had been ranked in the top 25 to start the season.
But then the Owls started to win games. Lots of them. And just like that, the Owls were on a streak that ended with the team winning 18 of its final 22 games (including sweeping the conference tournament) to finish the season at 31-29. Now it's on to Baton Rouge, where the team will play in its 23rd straight NCAA Regional.
"It taught us how to fight," pitcher Glenn Otto said of the team's tough start. "We were playing some really good teams and they were giving us their best games. It taught us how to fight that adversity and come back from it."
Rice won the season series against UH, and it split series with Texas and Stanford, two other NCAA Regional teams. Yet for most of the season, the Owls struggled to fit together the pieces and get good pitching on the nights with good hitting and good defense.
"Some teams fold," Rice head coach Wayne Graham said. "They didn't. It matured them. It was a rite of passage. They got better. They survived under pressure. We have a chance."
Otto thinks the team's battles for most of this season make the Owls better and make them a threat as the NCAA postseason begins.
"I feel it definitely helps us out," Otto says. "We're playing really well as a team right now. We've been trying to survive all season.”
Rice faces Southeastern Louisiana Friday. The Owls knocked Southeastern Louisiana out of the NCAA Regionals last season, but lost a season series to them earlier this year. LSU and Rice played three hard-fought games last year, with Rice getting LSU on the ropes before being eliminated by the Tigers. Texas Southern plays LSU Friday after the Rice game, with the winners of both games facing off Saturday night, and the losers playing Saturday afternoon.
The Houston Cougars have not had to try to survive this season. Besides a few hiccups (the Seth Romero issues, the feud with the Houston Chronicle, and losing two of three to both Rice and Baylor), the Cougars have essentially dominated the season. The team is 40-19, including a stellar home record of 21-7.
That home record could be important as UH is hosting Baylor, Texas A&M and Iowa in the Houston Regional starting Friday. It's arguably the toughest regional in the country since UH is facing three strong teams from three power conferences.
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"Because you play at home doesn't mean you are going to automatically win," UH head coach Todd Whitting told reporters Monday. "But we do play well at home."
UH has added temporary bleachers to handle the large expected crowds of not only UH fans, but also all of those Aggie and Baylor fans who follow their teams. It should make for a fun atmosphere, but it’s going to take a lot for these games to match the nuttiness of the last time the Cougars hosted a regional two years ago. That regional featured extreme weather consisting of long lightning delays, wild wind and flooding thunderstorms. Then there were the games, which featured near no-hitters and an epic extra inning elimination game between Rice and Houston that started on a Sunday night and ended Monday morning, with Rice knocking the favored Cougars out of the postseason.
"I told the team the game doesn't change, only the environment around you," Whitting said. "We've done a good job of keeping the outside world away from us this year."
Rice is scheduled to play Southeastern Louisiana at 7 p.m. Friday. UH will host Iowa at 7 p.m., and the Aggies and Bears are set for a first pitch at 2 p.m. Friday.