May 13, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
The figurative target on the back is as standard a part of the Rice uniform as the Old English font on the front that is the program brand.
Each weekend an opponent with designs on toppling the Owls occupies the dugout on the opposite side of the diamond, and for its last five conference series Rice has answered that challenge. That Southern Miss (29-17, 11-7 Conference USA) represents the fifth consecutive team standing one series victory away from wrestling control of C-USA from the Owls qualifies as little more than a scheduling anomaly. In truth, the Owls have been taking the best shot of league foes for several seasons.
"I feel like every year we go into the conference with a target on our back, and it's not necessarily the team that does it," Rice senior catcher Diego Seastrunk said. "With this program you're expected to do well in the conference, you're expected to make the playoffs and do well. This is what we've come to expect even since I've been here; that's been the culture around here. We expect to do well in the playoffs, we expect to get to Omaha, and that drives us throughout the year game after game.
"Going into conference having guys throw their best at us every weekend, I think we've done a good job of handling it this year."
Following a surprising series loss at Memphis to open the C-USA schedule, the Owls swept cross-town rival Houston to grab a share of first place. The following weekend they traveled to New Orleans to face Tulane, which also sat atop the league standings, and took the final two games of that pivotal series to move into sole possession of first place.
A week later the Owls were in Orlando, Fla., where UCF, which was one game behind Rice in the standings, awaited. Two victories later the Owls had dispatched of the Knights and set the stage for another first-place showdown, this time against co-league leaders East Carolina. The Owls swept the Pirates, reclaimed their solo perch atop the standings, and prepared to face Marshal in West Virginia. The Thundering Herd was just 2½ games out of first place and primed for an ambush, but the Owls outscored Marshall 37-12 in taking two of three games and setting the stage for another winner-take-all tilt, this one against the Golden Eagles.
Southern Miss poses a threat far more serious than the four teams that preceded it on the Owls' league schedule. The Golden Eagles have won 11 consecutive games to wash away remnants of an uneven start under first-year coach Scott Berry. The pitching has fallen into place behind righthanders Scott Copeland, Todd McInnis and Collin Cargill, the offense has caught fire via a balanced attack fronted by shortstop BA Vollmuth, designated hitter Adam Doleac and second baseman Taylor Walker, and the defense has settled in to turn a nation-leading 65 double plays. Southern Miss has swept three successive series, and is looking increasingly capable of a return trip to the College World Series.
"They're really a good team with good personnel," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "They're well-trained, and you're going to have to do things right to win. There's no doubt you're going to have to do things right.
"The 11 wins in a row is not the aberration. What they did early in the season is the aberration."
The same could be said of the Owls (30-18, 13-5), who opened the season with a tight performance at Stanford and grappled with internalized pressure until hitting rock bottom with a 13-12 record leaving Memphis. For a team that has struggled with consistency, even with a 16-6 record since April 1, there is no discernable point that can be identified as when the season turned. What has buoyed the Owls is the energy provided by hopeful foes, particularly away from Reckling Park.
The same fevered pitch crowds at Turchin Stadium and Bergman Field believed would bolster the Green Wave and Knights instead provided the Owls that extra oomph needed to overcome adversity on the road. Perhaps fortuitous scheduling can be thanked for initiating a reversal of fortunes, for Rice seemingly took pleasure in silencing home throngs.
"We know when we go in each weekend with a team nipping on our heels right behind us and then coming out excited to play us, it kind of gives us an edge too," Rice senior first baseman Jimmy Comerota said. "It does the same thing for us that it does for them. When they know they're coming and we know they're coming, it keeps us ready."
The Owls realize that adequately representing the Old English R requires a constant state of heightened awareness. Rice has claimed a conference regular-season or tournament title in each of the past 14 years, so by nature the Owls don't take lightly threats to their throne. There is an innate pride that comes with protecting the mantle has been passed down year after year, a welcome pressure that enables the Owls to manage the mounting challenges they face each and every weekend.
This weekend the Owls can add a 15th consecutive conference title to the trophy case with a series triumph over Southern Miss. Their belief is that their motivation will trump the Golden Eagles' desire for a hostile takeover.
"There is definitely something when you join the program and you know the consecutive conference championships streak and the consecutive tournament streak. You almost have to refuse to be the team that's going to end that," Comerota said. "You can call it pressure, you can call it a lot of different things, but there is something that comes with that. You know that every time you walk out between the lines that that's what has happened before you and you don't want to be the ones that lets that end."
Added Seastrunk: "You know it's your last year and you want to leave your stamp on the program. You definitely don't want to be the team that's going to drop those 14 consecutive conference titles. I like the pressure."