What’s the only thing better than 20 consecutive conference championships? 21.

This season, the Rice University baseball team will look to earn its 21st successive Conference USA title. The Owls’ spring 2016 campaign will begin at Reckling Park Friday, Feb. 19 against the University of Arizona. According to a Collegiate Baseball Magazine poll, Rice is currently ranked No. 20 in the country.

Last year’s rodeo

Rice is coming off a 37-22 season (22-8 in Conference USA play) during which they won their 20th consecutive conference championship. The 2016 squad also qualified for the NCAA tournament for the 21st consecutive year, the fourth longest streak in the nation. The Owls went on to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Houston Regional. However, the team was eliminated from post-season play by the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. 

This year’s roster consists of 13 new faces, all of whom are talented freshmen from across the nation. The freshmen hail from Florida, New Jersey, Colorado and elsewhere. The Owls also had 13 new players last year, meaning this year’s club is primarily made up of underclassmen.

Last season, three of the most formidable pitchers for Rice, Jordan Stephens, Austin Orewiler and Matt Ditman, were selected in the 2015 MLB draft. Stephens, a fifth-round pick by the White Sox, was the team’s Friday night starter during the latter half of the season and the go-to guy for big game situations. Orewiler served the role of the primary reliever out of the bullpen and left his legacy at Rice by throwing 9 1/3 shutout innings in relief against the Cougars. Ditman was the closer for the Owls for the last two seasons and departs Rice with 20 saves, the second most saves in school history. Fortunately for the Owls, their pitching staff has performed well during the fall and spring practices.

The perfect pitching

Focusing specifically on the matchup with Arizona this weekend, assistant coach Patrick Hallmark said he feels throwing strikes and landing the breaking ball is key. 

“Throwing strikes is most important, you always want to limit the free pass [and] that is priority number one,” Hallmark said. “But after that we have to do some other things like be able to throw the off-speed pitch while behind in the count.”

The head of the weekend rotation will be senior left-handed pitcher Blake Fox. This year, Fox was named a National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Preseason All-American and was tabbed by Conference USA as the Preseason Pitcher of the Year. Fox is 26-2 in his Rice career with a 2.45 ERA in over 220 career innings for the Owls. 

Another pitcher to watch for the Owls this season is junior Jon Duplantier. Duplantier was sidelined all of last season due to an injury but is looking to have a breakout season as one of Rice’s weekend starters. Two summers ago, Duplantier was named the California Collegiate League’s top prospect; he has a fastball capable of reaching 95 mph. 

Other pitchers will compete for starting roles this season. Sophomores Ricky Salinas and Glenn Otto each had excellent freshman campaigns. Salinas started in five games for the Owls last season, most notably against the University of Texas and the University of Arizona and led Rice to victories both times. His 1.00 walks plus hits per innings pitched was the best of all relievers. 

Otto led the staff in ERA last season with a 1.54 mark and registered 65 strikeouts in just 41 innings. He was recently named to the initial watch list for the NCBWA Stopper of the Year award given to the nation’s top reliever and had a standout summer in the California Collegiate League. Other notable arms include sophomores Josh Pettitte and Willy Amador and senior Austin Solecitto, who each have made vast improvements from last season. Freshmen who may see action early on and often include Zach Esquivel, Jackson Parthasarathy and Evan Kravetz. 

Fox said he plans to help out not only his fellow pitchers but the entire squad by the way he competes daily. 

“This is my senior season … and I’m just trying to be an encouragement [to the guys] because when we are winning it’s great but when we are losing it’s not [as] fun,” Fox said. “But I will try to pick people up when I can, be an example … and a person who goes out and competes.” 

Taking the field

On the opposite side of the ball, the Owls hitters will look to regroup after the departure of three of the team’s top offensive threats last season in second baseman Ford Stainback, left fielder Kirby Taylor and catcher John Clay Reeves. 

Hitting coach Clay Van Hook said he expects a strong offensive performance from this year’s team. 

“I think in terms of our offense, this is about as athletic as we have ever been,” Van Hook said. “I feel we have guys who have a combination of a good approach with the right tools and athleticism that will help us become a pretty productive offense.” 

Van Hook also works with the position players on defense and said the team will look to cut back on the unusually high 82 errors committed last season. 

“Obviously defense is something that our program has been known for for a long time and … one thing we harped on in the fall and we will harp on early is consistency,” Van Hook said. “[It’s about] making the plays that we can make but also making the plays that can stop momentum.” 

In the infield, senior second baseman Grayson Lewis and senior first baseman Connor Teykl return to start for the Owls. Lewis moves over from third base, his position last year. Sophomore Dane Myers will take over for Lewis at third, and sophomore Tristan Gray and freshman Ford Proctor are battling for the starting role at shortstop. 

Looking to play more of a role this season, Meyers said he feels that there are very few holes in the infield and in the offense in general. 

“It should be a really fun year, the squad is looking really good, the whole team is playing as one,” Myers said. “I take offense [to those who say Rice is predominantly pitching] because I feel that we can swing it pretty well, it’s now a case of proving it. I feel like [in] our one through nine we don’t have an ‘easy out’ we can all hit if we plan to go up there and battle to have good at-bats.”

The Owls have considerable depth and speed in the outfield that they will look to use to their advantage this season. Sophomore Ryan Chandler has taken the role of center field after batting .301 during his freshman year and committing just one error all season. For his performance last year, he was named the Conference USA Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American. Prior to this season, Chandler was selected to the First Team All-Conference USA. 

Chandler believes that the accolades are welcome but do not mean much. He said the goal is working to get better every day along with his teammates. 

“I’ve really learned since last year to buy into what the coaches have been teaching me and I can’t stress how important that is for some of the younger guys to do as well,” Chandler said. “Preseason awards don’t mean anything unless the team is successful and I feel we have plenty of guys who I can trust.” 

Junior Charlie Warren, who has the highest batting average of any returning player, returns to start in right field. He recorded three double plays from the outfield last season with his strong arm. Many other talented Owls like hard-hitting Dayne Wunderlich are competing for the final outfield spot. Outfielders junior Andrew Dunlap, freshman Cody Staab and sophomore Khevin Brewer all add unique elements with their combination of offensive and defensive skill sets. 

Senior Hunter Kopycinski will start behind the plate for Rice. He is one of just three seniors, along with Fox and Teykl, who has been part of the team for four seasons. Kopycinski played in 49 of the team’s 59 games last year, starting at catcher 40 times. Known for his excellent defense and steady arm for most of his career at Rice, Kopycinski batted .309 last year and notched his most productive season, solidifying his position as the everyday catcher. Assisting in the backup catching this season will be two true freshmen, Dominic DiCaprio and Gavin Johnson, each with the potential to become top defenders or to compete for the designated hitter role. Sophomore Brandt Frazier will continue to primarily work with the relievers in the bullpen before coming into the games. 

What’s on tap this season?

The Rice Owls schedule for this season features healthy competition with many nationally ranked teams. After facing Arizona in the opening weekend, Rice will face Dallas Baptist University, who made an NCAA tournament appearance last season, in a midweek game. Following this, the Owls will compete in the annual Houston College Classic, held at Minute Maid Park. The Owls will play No. 24 ranked University of Arkansas, No. 11 Texas Christian University and No. 6 University of Louisiana, Lafayette in consecutive days making for a great weekend of baseball. Other talented teams on the schedule include national powers University of Houston and Texas A&M University while also playing very competitive teams in Eastern Carolina University, the University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University. 

Entering his 25th season at the helm of the Rice Owls, head coach Wayne Graham said he believes this team is a national contender. 

“I really think we have fewer holes this year [than last year],” Graham said. “The talent is there but I would say if we can avoid injuries and the pitching evolves like we think it will, we have a national contender.”

Graham also said he had one final message for fans who are geared up for another season of Rice baseball.

“I would say this team is very watchable in the way that they play,” Graham said. “It’s going to be very interesting in the fact that they are already pretty good but have that chance to evolve into something great.”