The flag in left field flies every night; its end beginning to fray. The words on its bright white background — “2003 National Champions” — commemorate the greatest achievement in the history of Rice Athletics. Although great athletes, legendary coaches and successful teams have passed through Rice University, the 2003 baseball team remains the only team to have ever won a national title.
Of the 27 players on that 2003 team, none are currently on a major league roster this season. The park in which the Owls defeated Stanford University to win the title, Rosenblatt Stadium, has been torn down. Rice no longer plays in the same conference; it moved from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA in 2005.
Some aspects of the team, however, remain constant. On cool spring nights, Reckling Park still fills for baseball games. Head coach Wayne Graham still occupies the dugout, showing no signs of slowing down even as he turns 80. And of course, he and his players are still focused on one goal: the national title.
Back in October when the schedule was released, senior infielder Connor Teykl said he hoped that the team would be able to advance to Omaha, the site of the College World Series.
“Maybe we can host a regional, go to a super [regional], just baby steps,” Teykl said. “Then maybe we can get some fans to book hotels in Omaha.”
Six months later, Rice has put itself in position to do just that. The Owls are ranked as high as No. 13 in the country after sweeping Western Kentucky University over the weekend to earn Graham’s 1,100th victory.
Despite the strong performance as of late, the Owls will have a much more difficult time winning a title this season than they did in 2003. The 2003 team dominated the regular season, starting 33-1 after a 30-game winning streak and finishing with a record of 58-12. They had little competition in their conference, winning by 5.5 games.
This year, however, the Owls have endured far more ups and downs. Rice has won 15 of its past 17 games after starting the season 9-9, but it is still tied with the University of Southern Mississippi for the Conference USA lead with a conference record of 12-3. The Owls will have to perform well in their weekend series on the road against the Golden Eagles this weekend if they hope to maintain the conference lead. Florida Atlantic University is not far behind with a conference record of 11-4. This year’s Owls will have to fight hard to add to the streak of 20 consecutive conference titles.
The 2003 Owls also had one of the most dominant college pitchers of all time in then-sophomore Jeff Niemann. Niemann went 17-0 that season with a 1.70 earned run average. He pitched alongside Philip Humber and Wade Townsend, both of whom were selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft. Rice’s fourth starter, Josh Baker, posted a record of 8-0 on the season. To say that the Owls had star pitchers in 2003 would be an understatement: they had one of the best pitching rotations the NCAA has ever seen.
Junior Jon Duplantier, senior Blake Fox, sophomore Ricardo Salinas and sophomore Willy Amador form a formidable starting rotation, but they cannot equal the performance of the fearsome foursome of 2003. This year’s four starters have a combined ERA of 3.01. In 2003, however, Rice’s starters had a combined ERA of just 2.55. The pitchers have carried Rice to its lofty national ranking this year, but even their performance has not been on the level of the pitchers from 13 years ago.
On the offensive side, Rice shined during their national championship run. The Owls had seven regular starters hit above .300 compared to only two this year. The 2003 Rice Owls were an offensive juggernaut, unlike this year’s team.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare the Owls of 2003 to the Owls of 2016. The WAC was far weaker than Conference USA is today, so the Owls played inferior opponents. The quality of opponents could have made the disparity in statistics wider, though it cannot account for all of the differences. It is possible that the more difficult schedule this year can help prepare Rice for the challenges of playing in the NCAA tournament and spur them to make a deep run.
As of now, it is impossible to say where this Rice Owls team will end up. It is clear that this is not the single greatest team Graham has led during his 25-year tenure. This does not, however, mean that the Owls cannot win the national title. Although they do not have the same star power as the 2003 Owls, they have consistently found ways to win games all season long. If they can string a few of those wins together, it may be enough to spark a run in the tournament. Two months from now, we may be discussing comparisons between the 2003 Owls and the 2016 Owls again — this time, as Rice’s two national championship teams.