Jan. 29, 2014
IRVING, Tex. - With four preseason all-conference players, including Zech Lemond as the 2014 Preseason Pitcher of the Year, the Rice baseball team was picked to finish first in the league in the annual Conference USA head coaches' poll the C-USA office announced on Wednesday (Jan. 29).
With the addition of seven new teams to the conference this season, and the departure of three from a year ago, the C-USA landscape has certainly changed. Coaches' respect for the Rice baseball program, however, has held steady. Twelve of the 13 C-USA head coaches voted Rice as the preseason favorite for 2014. No matter what teams have comprised the league membership since Rice joined in 2006, C-USA coaches have picked the Owls as the preseason favorite every year there has been a poll (officially eight-of-the-last-nine years as there was no coaches poll conducted in 2010).
The 2014 Owls return six offensive starters in the batting order and ten veteran pitchers who helped lead last year's squad to a 44-20 overall record. Rice's veteran standouts, including Lemond (Jr., RHP), and fellow C-USA preseason honorees Michael Aquino (Sr. OF), Shane Hoelscher (Sr., INF) and Jordan Stephens (Jr., RHP), have the full attention of the C-USA head coaches.
Lemond has already been named a preseason All-America selection. A year ago he finished as the C-USA co-leader with 14 saves while posting a 7-2 record, 2.02 ERA and 1.018 WHIP. The right-hander from Houston (Waltrip High School) struck out 71 in 75.2 innings and held opponents to a composite .207 batting average. He was a first team all-conference reliever and he went on to earn all-region honors from the American Baseball Coaches Association. Lemond's 14 saves set the new Rice single season record, eclipsing the Owls' previous mark that was shared by eventual major leaguers David Aardsma and Tony Cingrani.
Aquino earned second team all-conference accolades last season before winning the national edition of College Home Run Derby at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., over the summer. The standout from The Woodlands High School out-slugged seven of the top collegiate home run hitters from around the nation to claim the event title in an event televised nationally by ESPN. In 2013 Aquino played in 63 of the team's 64 games and led the Owls in RBI (43), slugging (.508) and total bases (126), while sharing the team lead in home runs (9) and triples (4).
Hoelscher was one of the catalysts of the Owls' postseason run to through the NCAA Tournament. The third baseman from Belton, Tex., was named to both the NCAA Regional and C-USA all-tournament teams. For the season he led Rice, and was fourth among the C-USA league leaders, with the best batting average of his collegiate career (.320). Hoelscher was also third on the team with a career-best on-base percentage (.401) and he was fourth in slugging (.380).
Stephen's is Rice's most-acclaimed returning starting pitcher after being named the most valuable player of the NCAA Regional and to the C-USA all-tournament teams. The Alvin, Tex., native ranked among the NCAA leaders with 17 starts (tied for 11th) and 100 strikeouts (tied 36th). He led the Owls in innings (118.2), and was second on the staff in wins (8) and starts. Stephens finished second on the team in strikeouts and was third in ERA (2.43) and appearances (21).
Under the direction of head coach Wayne Graham, Rice baseball has made 19-straight trips to the NCAA Tournament and won 18-straight conference championships - including titles that were won in the regular season and/or conference tournament. The Blue & Gray won both the C-USA regular season and tournament championships in 2013. Now in his 23rd year at the helm of the program, Graham's Owls have won at least 40 games in each of the last 19 seasons.
The 2014 C-USA coaches' vote follows news from earlier this week where two national organizations both ranked Rice in their respective preseason Top 20 polls. So far in three preseason rankings Owls are rated 15th by Baseball America, and 17th by Collegiate Baseball magazine and PerfectGame.org.
The announcement of the C-USA coaches' poll is just 16 days before the Owls are scheduled to play their 2014 season-opener on the road at national power Stanford on Feb. 14. Rice held its first official practice of the season on Jan. 25. The full results of the poll and list of preseason honors is as follows:
2014 PRESEASON BASEBALL AWARDS
(as selected by C-USA's head coaches)
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Rice (12)
2. Florida Atlantic
3. East Carolina
4. Southern Miss
5. Tulane (1)
9. Middle Tennessee
10. Old Dominion
13. Louisiana Tech
(first place votes in parentheses)
CO-PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
Drew Reynolds, East Carolina (Senior, DH/RHP)
Aramis Garcia, FIU (Junior, Catcher)
PITCHER OF THE YEAR
Zech Lemond, Rice (Junior, Right-hander)
P Austin Gomber Jr., Florida Atlantic
P Jeff Hoffman Jr., East Carolina
P Jordan Stephens Jr., Rice
RP Zech Lemond Jr., Rice
C Aramis Garcia Jr., FIU
IF Brad Elwood Jr., Charlotte
IF Shane Hoelscher Sr., Rice
IF R.J. Perucki Sr., UTSA
IF Edwin Rios So., FIU
OF Michael Aquino Sr., Rice
OF Josh Eldridge Jr., Old Dominion
OF Ryan Stephens Sr., Middle Tennessee
OF Mason Robbins Jr., Southern Miss
DH/UT Drew Reynolds Sr., East Carolina