Rice entered the 2017 Conference USA Baseball Championship facing off against its history, both recent and the very legacy that drew the current players to South Main.
One year after they saw their streak of 20 consecutive conference championships come to a close with a walk-off win by Southern Miss in 2016, these Owls faced the once unimaginable prospect of seeing the nation's fourth longest streak of NCAA appearances come to an end.
In a season that had opened with an uncharacteristic string of struggles and mistakes, the current group of Owls arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi with a game plan that was both remarkably straight forward but also with little room for variance. In order to maximize their available pitching, they needed to follow the shortest path, the winner's bracket by winning three straight games and then let it all ride in the championship game.
Enter Matt Canterino.
The freshman from Southlake stepped on to the mound at MGM Park, with winds blowing towards the gulf shores beyond the outfield fences and stared down a potent FAU lineup averaging nearly seven runs per game, holding the C-USA's eastern Owls to just four hits, while fanning a career-high 11 in a career-best 7.2 innings of work, a crucial component to the Owls weekend masterplan.
"We knew that we were going to be facing tough teams the entire tournament," Canterino said. "Allowing Glenn (Otto) to only have to throw 1 1/3 innings that first game allowed him to go 3 1/3 the next day. You also have to give it up to the other starters as well. They kept us in the games, got us deep enough and then you put Glenn out there."
The freshman from Southlake had already demonstrated his pitching acumen in the first stage of the season, stepping into the Friday night starter's role and matching some legendary former Rice hurlers by fanning 10 or more in three consecutive starts. In his third career start he fanned 10 Pepperdine hitters, then matched that total the following week while limiting Stanford to a pair of hits in seven shutout innings to register his first career win. He continued the streak in his next start, exiting with a lead at Old Dominion in the C-USA opener, only to see the Owls drop a 6-5 decision.
As the Owls struggles continued, falling to a 4-11 mark after a home series to Southern Miss, a series that proved to be the turning point to the season, Canterino was winless in his next four starts, all against conference foes.
"I had a lot of success striking guys out earlier in the season, but that calmed down a little bit (as the season went on)," he said. "Scouting reports get out and hitters start to know what to expect. It became about making better pitches as you go on. I feel like it's been better the past couple of weeks because I've been making fewer mistakes with my slider. I'm getting more swings and misses with it that before when I was leaving it hanging and guys were able to hit it with authority. In that regards, I feel like I'm getting back to where I was at the beginning of the season. But I feel like I've matured along the way as well."
Canterino's growth was also buoyed by the emergence of the Owls offensive attack that saw Rice hit a combined .317 during an 18-4 run to that 23rd consecutive NCAA berth as well as improved defense as Rice allowed only 11 unearned runs in the last 22 after surrendering 42 in the first 38 frames.
"The past couple of weeks, I've been coming to terms that every once in a while, I'm going to make a good pitch and the (opponents) are going to hit it," Canterino stated. "It is what it is. If they get a couple of runs, then they get a couple of runs. But, you have to have confidence that their pitchers are going to make a couple of mistakes and that your hitters are good enough to do that also.
"With the power that we've been showing, that pretty much a recipe for success with the mindset that our pitching staff has. We're just going out there thinking, 'just get us back in the dugout as quickly as we can.' If they get a couple of runs, it's not going to be enough to win the ballgame for them because we have a high-octane offense to get us back in the lead," he stated.