The Rice Owls took both ends of a regular season-ending doubleheader against FIU on Saturday afternoon. The two wins gave the Owls the outright regular-season C-USA title, marking the 20th straight year that the Owls have won either a conference title, a conference tournament title or both. That’s right, 20 straight years.
This streak spans three conferences (SWC, WAC, C-USA), three presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama) and three different sets of Houston Astros uniforms. The Houston Oilers were still a thing when Rice won its first conference title and the Astrodome was still a viable facility. There have been multiple Rice trips to Omaha and the 2003 National Title. There’s been Lance Berkman and Anthony Rendon.
“It’s a nice figure,” Owls coach Wayne Graham said Saturday. “I like that. It’s a good thing. When you win that many in a row, you don’t want it to stop, that’s for sure, because then it becomes, if it stops, well, the old man’s lost it. We won, so I haven’t lost it yet.”
The Owls won the conference the same way the Owls always win the conference. There’s the starting pitching and decent hitting and a good bullpen. Graham always schedules a tough out-of-conference slate to prepare his team for conference play. Adjustments are made throughout the season, like this weekend when second baseman Ford Stainback, who hit second for most of the season, was moved to leadoff because he takes more pitches, strikes out less and gets on base, and the speedy Ryan Chandler, who held that slot most of the season, slides down to sixth because, though he strikes out a lot, is still a good hitter who knocks in runners.
There’s always that spot, every season, generally starting around the end of March and going through the first several weeks of April where the Owls look to be in disarray. The injuries, the slumps, the errors all massing as the team loses games it should win. Yet comes the end of the year with the Owls winning 35 games and going 22-8 in conference and it’s like, how did that happen, yet somehow it did because while the national baseball focus slides over to Houston or Texas A&M or LSU, the Owls just right the ship and win games and win conference titles.
It’s almost like Rice, and its streak, are taken for granted. The stands were far from packed on Saturday, and the media presence was nearly nonexistent. It’s not sexy to be around Rice baseball now. There’s no sizzle as with the crosstown Cougars and no fanatical fanbase like with the Aggies and LSU. There’s no Lance Berkman or Anthony Rendon on this Owl roster. It’s just a baseball team winning baseball games.
But while the fans and media might take the Owls and this streak for granted, the Owls don’t, and the opposition doesn’t. Rice is always on guard, fending off interlopers to its status as one of the best teams in the country year after year after year.
“Teams always come out to beat us.” second baseman Stainback said Saturday. “That’s what Coach has always told us, you can’t take it for granted that you’ve won so many in a row. You've got to come out ready to win because these guys, they want to beat you so bad. No one wants Rice to win another Conference USA title. That’s why we don’t host the tournament here, because they want to give other people a chance…You can’t take it for granted.”
The Owls now head out to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for the Conference USA tournament. And Stainback’s aware that he, a senior, may have played his last game ever at Rice’s Reckling Park since it appears that, unless a miracle happens, the Owls will be a two or three seed going into the NCAA postseason and will not be hosting any Regional or Super Regional games. And Wayne Graham contends that the Owls, despite being one of the country’s top 25 ranked baseball teams, must win at least two C-USA tournament games to guarantee getting into the Regionals.
It seems doubtful that the Owls would be skipped over for the NCAA Regionals despite what happens this week in Hattiesburg. Not after winning another conference title. Not after being a dominating program for two decades. Maybe the country is just now taking the Owls for granted, but prolonged excellence like this is just not something that’s not rewarded.
“That’s 20 straight years,” Stainback said. “That’s two decades of a legacy that Coach Graham has continued on forever. It’s amazing to be a part of something like that.”
For those people still paying attention to Rice baseball, it’s an amazing thing to watch. And it’s something that’s not likely to come to an end anytime soon. Especially not this week in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.