Houston Cougars players all point to the team’s 11-0 loss to Rice in early April as the turning point for the team’s season. Not only was the loss embarrassing because of the score, but it stung because the loss came to Rice, the team that had been at the top of the Houston-area college baseball period for two decades. Head coach Todd Whitting kept his team gathered in the Reckling Park outfield for a long, long time that night. He talked to them about focus, of stepping up into new roles, of playing as a team.
The Cougars then closed out the season by winning 19 of 23 games, winning the AAC regular season title, climbing up the rankings and achieving an RPI worthy enough of hosting an NCAA Regional. It was quite a turnaround, and it included a game in the last week of the regular season that saw the Cougars come from behind in the ninth inning to defeat the Owls and win the Silver Glove — the trophy given to the winner of the season series between the two schools — for the second season in a row.
“That was definitely the turning point,” said UH outfielder Kyle Survance of that loss to Rice. “We kind of had to come together and finally say, you know what, we have to stop worrying about everything else that’s going on around us. We’ve got to focus on the guys in the clubhouse and taking care of business there, and let it translate out onto the field. And that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been playing really well lately. We’re not worried about anything else going. We’re only worried about what’s going on with our team right now, and I think that talk definitely helped.”
That loss to Rice, and UH’s winning of the Silver Glove, help to set up what promises to be a fantastic NCAA Regional at Cougar Field starting today. It’s a chance for UH to knock Rice out of the postseason, to further assert its dominance of Houston-area baseball. Rice sees this as a chance at redemption, especially since, as the Rice players say, they could have easily been the winner of the Silver Glove, not UH, what with that final loss having come by when UH scored in the ninth due to fielding errors on Rice’s part.
But for that to happen, for the one seed UH and the two seed Rice to face each other yet again, they first have to defeat their opponents today. Rice starts out at 2:30 today, facing third seed Louisiana-Lafayette, a team that went 39-21 this season and advanced to a Super Regional last year. The Cougars follow up at 7:00 by facing fourth seeded Houston Baptist, who went 28-25 and won the Southland Conference tournament to advance to its first-ever NCAA Regional.
Rice has not played Louisiana-Lafayette this season, though the players are aware of what that team’s capable of, while Rice catcher John Clay Reeves knows lots of the players from his high school years. He was talking to his friends on Monday after the Houston Regional was announced, trying to get a feel for their team.
‘I’m really excited for [that game],” Reeves said. “Good thing about being a two seed is that you don’t overlook anybody. I think sometimes as a one seed, you might overlook the four, but when you’re a two seed playing the three seed, you’re definitely not overlooking that game. We’re real excited about playing them and getting the opportunity.”
The Cougars have played HBU, losing to the school earlier in the season — the Cougars also lost to Louisiana-Lafayette earlier in the season along with playing Rice three times. So the Cougars vow not to take the Huskies for granted.
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“It starts with that first game,” UH head coach Todd Whitting said of today’s game with HBU. “And our motto for the entire season, and really for the past five years since we’ve been here, has been just go 1-0 in the next game. That’s the most important one. You can’t look ahead to Rice or Lafayette. You’ve got to get past a very good Houston Baptist team right out of the gate.”
But it’s that possible Saturday night matchup that the fans and players are waiting for. The Cougars looking for the chance to erase any lingering doubt that they're now on top. The Owls looking to put the upstarts back in their proper place. But no matter what happens, UH’s Whitting puts the game in a proper perspective.
“Both teams having the success they’ve had is good for college baseball in the city of Houston,” he said. “It’s something that people get excited about. The Silver Glove trophy has been around for a long time. It’s a great rivalry. The past couple of years, it’s heated up a bit. It’s one that the city can really get behind and get excited about.”
It promises to be a good weekend for baseball. And if UH and Rice do meet, it can end up being an even better weekend.