It’s just not the same this year. As the calendar turns past Beer Bike, normally the focus of Rice fans turns from the end of basketball season to the heart of the baseball season. It would typically be time to look at the standings and see Rice baseball battling for the top spot in Conference USA. We should be monitoring its position in the top-25 rankings. Instead, we are left to wonder whether the Owls will even qualify for the C-USA tournament. Baseball season is different this year. It is not a good thing.

In past years, Reckling Park housed the jewel of Rice athletics. The baseball team had always been a model of consistency. For the past 22 years, while the football, basketball and soccer teams had highs and lows, the baseball team made the NCAA tournament every year. It even brought home the school’s only national championship. Evidence of that championship are visible throughout the athletic department, from photos in offices to signed jerseys to pennants and even an oil painting within the stadium itself.

If someone were to make an oil painting of a game from this season, the artist would have to get used to painting empty seats. Reckling Park is a ghost town. Few fans want to go out of their way to watch three hours of another Owls’ loss. Sitting under the spring sun watching a baseball game can be a serene, calming experience. This year, watching games at Reckling has been excruciating.

At 9-21 on the season through Monday, Rice has lost just three fewer games than it did all last season. The script has been the same for many of them. The starting pitcher keeps the team in the game while the offense scrapes across a couple of early runs, then the bullpen gives up runs in bunches and the offense fails to keep up.

It is cruel that the decline has been so steep. If I had been told before the year that the Owls would miss the NCAA tournament this season, it might have made sense. It was clear that the team was going to have to rely on young pitchers with little experience at the college level. That is rarely a model for success. But while the pitching was expected to be inconsistent, it was not supposed to drive the team into a ditch. A few losses here and there due to breakdowns in the bullpen would have been understandable, and if those losses had come often enough, the team might have been around .500. But the bullpen has imploded so frequently and the offense has come up short so many times that the team has barely won a single game per week.

Spring just isn’t the same without a strong baseball team. Watching the standings only brings dismay, not excitement. There is no chase for the conference championship and no top-25 ranking to follow. The one constant in Rice athletics is gone, replaced with an early offseason for the athletic department. The team still has a lot of talent — sophomore catcher Dominic DiCaprio, sophomore shortstop Ford Proctor and freshman pitchers Matt Canterino and Addison Moss all look like outstanding players — but it seems as though after this year, the mythology of Rice baseball will take another hit. There will be no more NCAA tournament streaks. No more conference title streaks. The national championship banner will still be there,but it gets more and more tattered every year, a reminder that 2003 is not so recent anymore.

This year is certainly different. I don’t know if things will ever quite be the same.