The Houston Cougars finished their baseball season last Friday, losing 10-6 to the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles team that won the C-USA Tournament championship on Saturday night. It was a game that didn't need to be played. The Cougars had lost their chance to play for the tournament title when Rice kicked their collective asses 24-3 on Thursday night. And Southern Miss had already clinched its spot in the title game due to a loss earlier that day by ECU.
Not only was it a game that didn't need to be played, but it was a game that took forever to be played, being twice stopped by lightning strikes in the vicinity (the first stoppage was for an hour and fifteen minutes as the players were preparing for the bottom of the third inning. The second stoppage was for 24 minutes, and came ten minutes after the game had resumed from the first stoppage).
Like most games this season, the Cougars took the early lead, but Southern Miss scored four runs in the bottom of the first to guarantee the win. The Cougars scored twice in the top of the ninth, but left two runners stranded on base as the game ended.
"It was a poor season," Cougars coach Rayner Noble said. "We just -- our pitching just never came together. Our bullpen couldn't come together. We had numerous guys nicked up and hurt. It's just, it's way below the University of Houston standards this season."
The high point for the Cougars this season was the Houston College Classic at the first of March. They swept through that tournament, and took down the Texas Longhorns, one of the best teams in college baseball, in a classic 1-0 thriller that went down to the last pitch. The Cougars used the Classic to catapult them on a West Coast swing that saw the team win six straight and seven of eight. But they soon fell apart and never recovered.
The starting pitching never held together, but the bullpen and the offense plugged the holes for the first half of the season. Then the bullpen tired, the starting pitching never gelled, and the team just kind of appeared to go through the motions. At times, it even looked as if Noble had lost the team, or else that the team just didn't care. The Cougars finished at 25-32 for their second straight losing season, and it no way resembled the team that reached the NCAA Regionals in 2008.
The question now becomes one of what the Cougars do to recover from this poor season. Some alums, especially those on the message boards, will eagerly argue for ridding the team of Noble. And while that may seem an obvious step, it actually isn't because, after the Cougars NCAA Regional appearance in 2008, Noble was rewarded with a five-year contract. With the school currently paying off Tom Penders, and with AD Mack Rhoades trying to drum up donor support for a massive renewal project of the football stadium and basketball arena, it might just be too much to expect the school to willingly add another contract to the list of those it is already paying out.
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The Cougars do have some talent, though that talent needs to be better harnessed. Starting pitchers Michael Goodnight and Eric Brooks should be returning next season. Both flashed moments of potential during the season -- Goodnight was the pitcher who shut down Texas, and he dominated in his start against Marshall to open up the tournament while Brooks looked to be finally be figuring things out in his last several starts this season. DH M.P. Cokinos shined in the spotlight -- he made the all-tournament teams of the Houston College Classic and C-USA tournament -- and Austin Gracey showed promise at third base. Shortstop Blake Kelso is draft eligible, but should he return, he anchors a promising infield.
But will flashes of potential be enough for a school and a fan base that may soon be requiring more from all sports, especially considering the recent national success of the football program? And while the baseball program will never have the overwhelming alumni support of football and basketball, it's hard to believe that those who do support and contribute are going to continue wanting to do so if the team continues to be so thoroughly dominated by Rice.
Ultimately, this is all for Noble and Rhoades to puzzle out. But just as it is with all Cougar sports, it should be an interesting off season.
A MISCELLANEOUS NOTE: The Cougar baseball team has more uniform combinations than the Houston Texans, and they seemingly wore a different combination for every game I saw this season. May I suggest that they choose one home and one road combination and stick with it? Maybe if the players could spend more time concentrating on playing baseball and less time on color coordination they might play better. At least that's my suggestion.