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March 1, 2006

SCS.comRice University is a small private university located in Houston, Texas with an enrollment of about 4,400. The school has not had a lot of athletic prowess through the years. In fact, the biggest thing to ever happen at Rice was hosting the Super Bowl in the 1960's, but they are beginning to turn some heads on the diamond. The most recent Conference USA member started in the old Southwest Conference and then was banished to the WAC after the SWC disbanded in 1996.

The Owls have won ten conference titles in a row, including every WAC title since joining in 1997. In 1996 the Owls won the final SWC Tournament and beat Texas to do it, and then advanced to the NCAA Regional. It was only the second postseason appearance in team history. In 1997 the Owls reached the College World Series for the first time ever in only their third NCAA tournament appearance. Now the Owls are a force to be reckoned with in college baseball. They won the College World Series just three years ago, and they are poised to return there in 2006.

So far in 2006, the Owls have compiled a 10-2 record. The losses were to defending national champion Texas and Long Beach State. Meanwhile, they have beaten teams such as TCU, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. The Owls are in the top ten in all the major polls. While the Owls dominated the WAC, this year in Conference USA they will have to face teams such as Tulane, a squad that I see making the College World Series. The Owls will now have a legitimate conference rival in baseball.

The schedule does not get any easier as the Titans of Cal State-Fullerton come to Reckling Park for a three-game set this weekend. Rice is talented enough that they would be successful in any conference. The success at Rice is not because of a weak league. They have not played in a conference such as the SEC or the Big 12, but they would hold their own in those leagues too.

The Owls now have a state of the art facility in Reckling Park. The 3,500 seat stadium opened in 2000, and the Owls have been very tough at home since. Reckling Park is by far the best facility in all of Conference USA. It has eight skyboxes and over 3,300 chairback seats. The majestic Houston skyline can be seen beyond the outfield fences, which adds to the charm of the ballpark. The coaching offices are on site at the stadium, as are a weight and training facility. The CUSA baseball tournament will be held at Reckling Park this year, and that will be a good thing for the Rice Owls since they have won over seventy percent of the games on their homefield since its opening six years ago.

Head Coach Wayne Graham has been the Owls skipper for the past fourteen years. In 2003 he won the College World Series, which was and is the only national championship garnered by the University. The Texas grad, high school coach, and former San Jancinto Community College coach has always won. He has now had thirty-two consecutive winning seasons. Not many coaches can say that they have accomplished that feat. Coming into the 2006 season, Graham had complied a record of 627-257 during his fourteen seasons as the Owls skipper. Not many coaches have accomplished as much in college baseball, or any college sport for that matter.

During Graham's tenure, he has coached 19 different Rice players to 32 different All-American honors. No fewer than 30 former Owls are playing professional baseball. While at San Jacinto Community College, he coached major leaguers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite. Coach Graham has quite a resume. This man started at the high school level, then jumped to JUCO, and now he is one of the most respected in all of Division I baseball.

This season appears to be another championship year for Graham and his program. All-American candidates Joe Savery and Josh Rodriguez are off to good starts in 2006. Rodriguez plays a mean shortstop and is hitting .341 with 2 homeruns and 15 runs batted in. Savery is hitting .353 with 4 doubles and 5 runs batted in. Savery is also 2-1 on the mound with an earned run average of 2.42 and 22 strikeouts.

The Owls' pitching staff is tough as always as the staff's earned run average is 2.42 on the year. Cole St. Clair and Eddie Degerman have been almost unhittable thus far, as they are a combined 5-0 and carry an earned run average of 0.69. Bobby Bell has been solid and is also unbeaten on the year.

Rice also has some young men who can hit the ball. Jordan Dodson is hitting a paltry .394, while Aaron Luna already has 4 homers this season. The Owls are batting .287 as a team so far, which is very good considering the competition that they have faced.

The Rice Owls were nothing more than habitual doormats for Texas, Arkansas, and the rest of the old Southwest Conference until Wayne Graham jumped from San Jancinto Community College and took on a challenge that many would have ran from. Fourteen years, a National Championship, and 627 wins later, the Owls might just be the next dynasty in college baseball. The Owls are becoming used to June trips to Nebraska.

It has been just a shade over a decade since they made their first postseason visit. It is absolutely amazing at the rate this program has gone from a nobody to a somebody. Other programs such as Virginia Tech in football and Gonzaga in basketball come to mind when you mention the rapid success at Rice. The Owls will win another national title in baseball - that could be this year - but if they never win another one, the program will always be one of the best rags-to-riches stories in NCAA history!

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