Amid all the shots of excitement and celebration that surrounded the announcement of the 64 teams who will embark on the Road to Omaha with the hopes of reaching the 2017 College World Series, one of the lasting reactions will be that of the players from Miami, who were forced to confront the end of a remarkable 44-year run of tournament appearances.
Although their own streak of 23 consecutive appearances is shorter by years than the age of some of their teammates, Rice seniors Dayne Wunderlich and Charlie Warren could sympathize with the emotions of the Hurricanes after a remarkable late-season surge rescued the Rice's streak, which now stands as the third longest active streak in NCAA history.
"Dayne comes from a big time tradition at Brenham and I played at The Woodlands and we also have a big baseball tradition," Warren said. "We have been part of extending the tradition at Rice and we both have always known that you don't want to be the group that doesn't pass the streak on to the next team. "
'We knew Southern Miss was going to be the contender that we would have to take down so when they came here and kind of embarrassed us by blowing us out twice at home, it left a bad taste in our mouths," Wunderlich said. "It became a recurring theme, that we were good enough to be the champions of Conference USA. We didn't do it last year and we started out this year so bad. We knew that once we were midway through conference that we had to step it up to even make the tournament and get a chance to take them down to win the tournament."
During a midweek lull in the schedules and with finals on the near horizon, the seniors called their teammates together to stake a claim for the remainder of the season.
"We knew what the record was, but the message was that this was all on us to turn it around. The series at Western Kentucky was a great chance and we did that big time," Warren said.
"We could say that we were better than this as much as we wanted, but at the end of the day, we had to play like it," Wunderlich said. "We needed to just go out on the field and play as hard as we could every game and try to play up to our own abilities. Not try to do too much. We evaluated ourselves and looked deep into ourselves and each guy said this is what you need to do: Do your own part for the team and we will be successful. "
Nationally there was buzz that three of the four longest active NCAA streaks were in immediate peril as Florida State, owners of the second-longest streak at 39 games, was also hovering near the .500 mark But locally, the Owls shut out any considerations other than the next game.
They swept a series from Western Kentucky, took two of three from UTSA and then showed a resilience to respond to late challenges and produce a walk-off win over Lamar and then overcome a five-run deficit with six outs left to complete a series sweep at Charlotte.
The turnaround was startling, but both Warren and Wunderlich said it came from the most basic of tenets.
"You have to know your capabilities, know your own body and know your own level of play," Wunderlich said. "We are very team-oriented. Everybody is doing what they need to do. Whenever we need a big hit, they've been coming from a lot of different people. We've paid a big price this season and we've come through the fire and now we are finally seeing a little success."
The Owls hit .317 as a team while winning 18 of 22 and both seniors joined in the effort. Warren raised his average from .259 to .265 while Wunderlich hit .297 to raise his average 45 points. The team also blasting 29 homers, three more than their season total from 2016.
Suddenly, a season that once was in peril became one of great promise. But even as they made the potential of extending the NCAA streak more plausible, Wunderlich said the focus remained as it had been since their run began.
"It's (the NCAA streak) always in the back of your mind, but last Sunday in Biloxi, the only thing on our minds was playing hard," he said. "We had some breaks in the game. The rain delay certainly helped us because they were just starting to build a little momentum. We came back from that and jumped on them right away.
"We were really playing for our lives. If we don't win that game, we're not in the tournament. So for us at that moment, it wasn't so much extending the streak as extending our season," he stated.
And now with all matters such as streaks safely secured and a third C-USA trophy added to the collection, the Owls return to a familiar setting to take on a familiar foe in a tournament that has become an annual expectation. The differences between coming to Baton Rouge last year after a walk-off loss and this year with the emotions of returning the outcome are obvious to Wunderlich.
We're definitely coming in hot and we have a lot of momentum behind us but we have to keep that up," he said. "We played Southeastern (Louisiana) last year in the regional and three times earlier this year. We know they are a very good baseball team and we can't look past Friday night. Hopefully we can get a win there and then get a chance to play LSU in front of a big crown on Saturday night."