Paul Blankenship did not have to see the Rice women's tennis team's historic win over Ole Miss in person to appreciate both its significance as well as the enormity of the challenge the Owls had overcome to earn the school's first berth in the Sweet 16.
"They did something very, very difficult. They went on to an SEC school's home court with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line and controlled the momentum of the match. It takes a very special group of players and a very good coach to make that happen."
Blankenship speaks from personal experience, having led the Rice women's tennis team from 1981-2001, taking teams to their first three trips to the NCAA Championships as well as to as high as 19th in the weekly national rankings.
For more than a decade of his tenure as the Owls coach, national rankings only named the weekly top 20 teams and the NCAA tournaments began at the Sweet 16 level, making comparisons of the accomplishments of some of his most talented teams with those of the 2012 Owls impossible to quantify.
"In my second year, we had a team that finished 20-3, but they only took one team from the Southwest Conference. That was a great team, but we had to stay home," he noted.
By 1996, the NCAA field expanded and he led teams to three straight NCAA Championships, but with the end of final exams and the start of the NCAA's literally days apart, the Owls were hardly in prime mental condition to excel on the court. In 1999, the Owls had to decline a bid because the tournament would begin the day after finals ended.
"I think it is great the way the season is set up now. They have the conference tournament, then they can get finals out of the way and then have time to prepare for the NCAA's. They have a chance to get back to thinking about tennis and they obviously did a great job with that period of time this year," he stated.
He had taken teams into the teeth of intimidation that SEC teams could conjure up, especially when advancement in the national tournament was at stake. While the casual sports fan might have looked at a 4-2 win by Rice over Ole Miss and focused solely upon the advancement to Athens, Blankenship could draw on his memories and savor something far more unique.
"SEC schools have a well-deserved reputation for having a massive home court advantage. You can run into all kinds of things when you play a match on the road. I've seen fans lean over the rail and spit tobacco juice on the back of one of my players as she was about to receive serve. They shout when you are trying to serve. They are always trying to impact the match," he recalled.
For a young team to be able to stare down that environment and withstand the second-set surge that the Rebels leveled at the Owls on Saturday night, Blankenship said it must be comprised of talented players who have been prepared to deal with high degrees of difficulty by their coaches and the Owls obviously have that combination in place.
"They showed a great deal of character to succeed in that situation," Blankenship said.
College tennis coaches have a unique challenge in that they recruit players who have been developed in a sport that is individual in its nature to come in and adapt to a team environment. While the concept may be foreign to many, he noted it was revealing to see a young team close ranks and prosper as the Owls did last weekend.
"It takes a special coach to get individual players to buy into the team concept and produce a team win as they did at Ole Miss. Elizabeth (Schmidt) has done a great job with bringing this team along and having them show so much improvement over the course of this season," he noted.
The Rice Owls football grass practice field, north of Rice Stadium, is currently undergoing renovation that started on Monday. Work crews began by removing sod and topsoil. The goal is to level the practice field, which would provide better and safer footing for the team. The field will be ready in time for practice in August.
"We are leveling the practice field and putting in new sod," commented Jack Garrett, Rice senior associate athletic director. "The field had some undulations in it and it was problematic from a drainage standpoint. This new field will have a nicer appearance with a little bit of a crown. It will be easier to conduct practices and safety issues will be better than they were before."
Tuesday's announcement by the National Football Foundation of the 2012 College Football Hall of Fame FBS Class which includes former Rice quarterback Tommy Kramer.
NCAA Memories: Rice junior Kate Gater began her college career at the University of Virginia and as a freshman played both singles and doubles in the first two rounds of the 2010 NCAA Championship. She was 0-1 in singles with a second match unfinished and was 0-2 in her two doubles matches as the Cavilers defeated Princeton and then fell to Duke. She was a ready resource for her Owl teammates looking for a little perspective on the NCAA experience.
"You can definitely tell that everything is on the line. It's the pinnacle of everything you work for all year. It's very intense. The team we have (at Rice) is full of people who enjoy playing and I feel like we do very well when we are under pressure.
"No one has asked specifically about what it was like, but I think that's because I honestly think that this team treats every match the same. Since we played Illinois earlier in the year and the matches were really close, we going in with the mindset that we have a very good shot at winning and just concentrate on playing one point at a time."
The Last Time: In 2006, Blair DeSesa played #1 singles for a Rice team that shocked the C-USA tournament by winning the title as the 7th seed, earning her teammates a berth in the NCAA Championship, as well a berth in the NCAA Singles Championship. Now married to former Owls baseball player Tyler Henley, Blair Henley has worked as a volunteer coach for the 0wls and witnessed the development of the 2012 team into an NCAA qualifier. She reflected on her own experiences
"We had been low seed, I am fairly sure no one expected us to be playing in the NCAAs. We were all thinking this was our last shot and it worked out for us. It was such a privilege to be there. You realize this is what you had worked for.
"I won't lie.... As great as it is to be at a school where you are challenged academically, it was fantastic to be able to practice and play with no distractions. You could see that in practice this week (with the current Owls). A few of the girls came up and told me how fantastic it was to not have a class or a lab to worry about. It absolutely takes some of the pressure off and it clears your mind to be able to focus ball-by-ball and trying to win your matches.
"No one has come up to ask any specific questions about the NCAAs, but they have mentioned that the last time we went in my senior year. I have been blessed to be a part of the team this year and to see their growth from the fall to this point. They absolutely deserve to be where they are. What many people don't realize is that the tennis season is all year, there is no break or offseason. To be able to stay injury-free, stay persistent and stay hungry throughout the entire year of school with school work on top of that.... I have a lot of respect for them."
Change of Plans: Rice's lone senior Ana Guzman was set to walk in Rice's commencement on Saturday and had family members coming in from various points, including her home in Guatemala. However, her family gladly made the change in plans and after arriving in Houston earlier in the week, they made the drive to Oxford with the team to watch her compete in the NCAA Championship.
"I could not think of a better reason to not be able to walk in graduation," Guzman said. "My whole family is coming in and they are going to drive over with us to see the Regional. It's still a good trip and everyone will be together, and it's for a very good reason. "
Change of Plans II: Dominique Harmath was set to spend the summer studying in Pamplona, Spain as part of Rice's International Study program. Qualifying for the NCAA Doubles Championship with Natalie Beazant at the end of May caused her to have to make some slight alterations to her travel schedule, but her busy summer is still on track.
"My international study schedule had to be adjusted a bit when we made the doubles, but it wasn't too hard to make a few minor changes. I will be studying in Pamplona, Spain, but I am also going to Dubai and also to Hungary to visit some relatives. My cousin just started working in Dubai, so it's a chance I might not have again. I haven't been back to see my family who lives in Hungary for about three years, so I am excited to see them again."
Each spring the Women's Athletics Advisory Board puts on the Rice Golf Classic, with proceeds benefiting Rice University women's athletic teams. It is the major fund raising event of the year for Rice women's athletics. This year's event, held on Monday at Black Horse Golf Club, was another success. Enjoy the video montage and the interviews shown below:
Greg Williams, women's basketball:
Elizabeth Schmidt, women's tennis:
Wanna Hadnott, Women's Athletics Advisory Board:
From the good folks at Fox, here are the systems that will carry Saturday afternoon's Rice-Houston game live. Additional systems as well as many of these will also rebroadcast the game, but these are the live availabilities for Saturday:
FSN NETWORK, FOX SPORTS ARIZONA , FOX SPORTS DETROIT , FOX SPORTS MIDWEST (Fox Sports Plus) MSG PLUS , FOX SPORTS NORTH, FOX SPORTS WISCONSIN, FOX SPORTS OHIO, ROOT SPORTS (Pittsburgh Region), ROOT SPORTS (Rocky Mountain Region), FOX SPORTS SOUTHWEST (TX & OK), FOX SPORTS HOUSTON (Texas) SUN SPORTS
After another day of baseball drills and one day after he made it 2x2 with Toronto professional sports teams after the Argonauts selected him in the 5th round of the CFL Draft, Rice tight end Luke Willson checked in for a second to provide a glimpse of his time in the Toronto Blue Jay Extended Spring Training Program in Dunedin, Florida.
What is your daily routine like?
If there was one thing that is really different from what I expected, it would be the pace of everything. It's very deliberate and low-key. A lot of drills, but not an anything like the pace I am used to during football practice.
I'm guessing you might be one of the bigger guys walking around camp?
(laughs).... Definitely one of the more filled-out guys here. There are a few tall guys, but they are more slender. It's kinda nice, I guess.
How has the adjustment back into a baseball routine gone?
I think I've adjusted and gotten used to as the days have gone along. But the daily routine is pretty mundane.
Anything stick in your mind at this point?
Maybe one of the biggest highlights at the start was when I realized the first day of batting practice when I realized that Sandy Alomar Sr. was going to be throwing to us. That was pretty special. There are a couple guys here who have big league time and are on rehab assignments. Most of the guys here are pretty tired of the daily routine and are looking forward to moving on to their teams at the end of the month.
Will you get any game action before camp breaks and you head back to Houston?
That's about to start and I am looking forward to seeing some pitching. We have a rotating schedule with the other clubs in this area. We play the Pirates on Monday and Tuesday, the Yankees on Wednesday and Thursday, and then the Phillies on Friday and Saturday. As I said, I'm ready to see some pitching. I think I'm ready to see how I'll do.
What's your schedule like the rest of the way?
We have camp games until the end of the month. At that time, most of the guys here will go on to their assigned teams. The youngest guys will stay here and play Gulf Coast League games, but the rest of them will go on to either Bluefield, West Virginia in the Appalachian League or Vancouver in the Northwest League. But I'll be heading back to Houston for the start of summer school and summer conditioning.
Rice Owl senior distance runner Allison Pye has accomplished a lot during her four years as a student-athlete. Below are Pye's highlights:
On April 21 former Rice Owl Philip Humber took over
the day's sports news by throwing a perfect game in the major leagues. The
event created a whirlwind of national attention and even landed the Sid
Richardson-ex an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.
Perhaps the most impressive and inspiring aspect of recent "Humber-mania" however, was that when things settled down some for Philip, he turned his thoughts to his alma mater and Head Coach - Wayne Graham. Earlier this week Philip sent coach Graham a letter which is now published here with the permission of both parties...
I read that you and the team were watching the closing moments of the game on Saturday after you all had finished off an exciting win yourselves. The article said that you were 'calling for the slider in the ninth inning.' That reminded me of my first game as an Owl, when you called a 3-2 curveball from the dugout with the bases loaded and the Aggie fans going crazy at Minute Maid.
I think that one moment sums up what you mean to me as a person and a ballplayer. You believed that I was up to the task and because of the leader you are, I believed it, too. There were many times in my career at Rice when you told me what I needed to hear whether I agreed or not. The further along I go in life and in baseball, the more I realize how right you were. You helped me achieve more than I ever thought possible by pushing me in ways nobody else could.
The reality of the perfect game is still sinking in and I'm trying to process everything that has happened as a result, but as of now I would rank the feeling I had Saturday second to winning the National Championship. The culmination of a season of hard work within a team environment towards an ultimate goal is the most gratifying moment in sports. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of that.
It has taken me a lot longer to get to the big leagues in a meaningful role than I thought it would. The ups and downs have been worth it, and I know it has all been used to make me a better person and pitcher. However, I firmly believe it would have happened sooner if I had you around to challenge me mentally like you did at Rice.
I know you have been keeping up and pulling for me this whole time and I've been doing the same for you guys. I wish you continued success and can't wait to see the Owls bring home another Championship.
All my best!