Rice, UH Hope to Take the First Step to Winning NCAA Regionals

The cliché is one game at a time. That nothing matters but for the current play, the next pitch. And for the Rice Owls and the Houston Cougars, nothing this weekend matters more than the one game being played. The Owls and Cougars are among the 64 teams partaking in the NCAA Regionals this weekend, with the ultimate goal being a trip to Omaha for the chance to win the College World Series.

But to get to Omaha, both Rice and UH will have to take it one game at a time, literally. To advance to the Super Regionals -- the next stop before Omaha -- both teams have to win three games in their respective regionals. If either loses two games, the season is over. So the focus has to be on that one game being played because there may be nothing to look forward to if there's a loss.

For the 11th time in the past 14 years, the Owls (41-18) are hosting a Regional at Reckling Field. The Owls have failed to advance the last two times they hosted, and to get to the Super Regional this time, not only must Rice defeat George Mason on Friday night (7:00 first pitch, ESPN 3), it'll also have to get past Texas and Texas A&M (playing at 3:00 on Friday) as part of a mini-Southwest Conference reunion.

"Well, they're good teams, but it's a great thing for Houston for them to all get together here," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "I think they're beatable. We're going to have to play great ball to get through them. It's a good regional. Solid all the way."

The keys for Rice will be the same as always for Rice. The Owls have outstanding pitching (Kevin McCanna, 8-3, and Blake Fox, 12-0, will start on Friday and Saturday) and the ninth best defense in the country. But the offense comes in fits and spurts and the Owls need it to be firing on all cylinders. The Owls struggle against really good pitchers, which they'll be facing this weekend, and will need production from more than just the core three of first baseman Skyler Ewing, right fielder Michael Aquino (who was on fire in the C-USA tournament) and catcher John Clay Reeves.

What's happened in regionals past is that the hot batters for Rice usually end up on base with nobody else able to pick up the key hits to score them. That means the pitching and defense must be perfect, and the slight miscues have resulted in the Owls having to win two games on Sunday with the hope of winning another on Monday, but usually not able to pull it off.

But at least the Owls are at home, whereas the Cougars find themselves on the road as the No. 2 seed in Baton Rouge, having to get past LSU, one of the best teams in the country. The Cougars (44-15) have not shied away from challenges this season, playing one of the toughest schedules in the country and going 27-5 in non-conference play while losing only one weekend series the entire season.

  "We are excited to be back in the NCAA Tournament," head coach Todd Whitting said. "It has been a long, hard road for this program the last four years. Hosting is hard, but making the NCAA Regional tournament is even harder. LSU and Alex Box Stadium will be a great venue and [LSU] historically one of the best programs in the history of college baseball."

For the Cougars to face LSU, they must first get past Bryant University (42-14), the victors of the Northeast Conference, making their second straight tournament appearance. Whitting has not yet set his rotation for the weekend, though odds are it'll be either Aaron Garza (8-4, 2.65 ERA) or Jake Lemoine (6-6, 2.35 ERA) getting the start on Friday at 7:00 (ESPN 3).

The Cougars excel in just about every aspect of the game. But it's the pitching staff that is the team's national identity. The staff has issued just 103 walks on the season while compiling the nation's fourth best ERA and second best WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). The bullpen duo of Tyler Ford (8-0, 1.26 ERA) and Chase Wellbrock (4-0, 12 saves, 1.15 ERA) efficiently closes out games when the starters falter.

The Cougars will also be playing with a chip on their collective shoulders as they, and many observers, felt the team deserved a one seed and a hosting spot instead of Louisville (the team the Cougars defeated to win the AAC tournament this past weekend) or Rice (who had a worse record than UH and who lost three times to UH this season). But if the Cougars focus on the matter ahead and dispatch the teams they'll face in Baton Rouge, then they'll have a chance at revenge since the winner of the LSU Regional is slated to face the winner of the regional hosted by Rice.

But first things first. Rice must win out this weekend. Houston must win out this weekend. They win, then they play each other for the right to go to Omaha. But there's still three games to be won by each to even get close to that possibility.

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