On April 16, Rice baseball’s record was 13-25. Today, after a remarkable turnaround, the team is on its way to the NCAA tournament. The Owls won the Conference USA title with a walk-off 5-4 victory over the University of Southern Mississippi to earn C-USA’s automatic bid to the postseason, extending the team’s streak of 23 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Head coach Wayne Graham said the tournament win was one of the best of his career.
“It’s up there with the  national championship,” Graham said in an interview with Fox 26. “Nothing’s that sweet.”
Rice secured the conference championship in dramatic fashion in front of a decidedly pro-USM crowd in Biloxi, Mississippi. Trailing 4-2 to Southern Miss in the seventh inning with its season on the line, the Owls loaded the bases with one out. A wild pitch brought one run home before junior outfielder Ryan Chandler ran out an infield single to score the second run of the inning and tie the score at four. Junior pitcher Glenn Otto kept the Golden Eagles at bay for the next two innings despite allowing a heart-stopping fly ball to the warning track that looked like it might leave the yard.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the score still tied at four, Rice needed a run to win the game. Chandler delivered again. Junior designated hitter Andrew Dunlap led off with a single and was replaced by sophomore pinch runner Kendal Jefferies. Senior outfielder Dayne Wunderlich, playing in what could have been the final game of his college career, advanced Jefferies to second on a sacrifice bunt. Then, Chandler stepped in. With the count at 1-1, he drove a deep fly ball to left center field that dropped just over the center fielder’s head. Jefferies easily scored from second and the Owls dogpiled near second base to celebrate the conference championship and NCAA tournament berth.
Graham said he was overjoyed by the team’s heroics at the end of the season.
“This one was special because we were truly down,” Graham said. “People were talking about how I must have truly lost it. It makes you younger really quick.”
While Chandler’s walk-off double will be remembered as the defining moment of the game, Rice’s pitching turned in a masterful performance as well. Freshman pitcher Matt Canterino and Otto combined to hold the vaunted Golden Eagles’ offense to just five hits. Otto was named the tournament’s most valuable player following the win. Junior third baseman Dane Myers and senior outfielder Charlie Warren were also named to the all-tournament team. Otto credited his teammates for their grit throughout the late season surge.
“This team, we’re fighters,” Otto said. “We’re survivors. That’s what we’ve done all season. Nobody has expected us to make a regional or win the conference or any of that but that’s how we like it.”
Going into the conference tournament, Rice knew it had to win the championship or it would miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994. As the No. 6 seed in a field of eight teams, a championship appeared unlikely. The Owls did not let that deter them. They opened with a 5-3 victory over No. 3 seed Florida Atlantic University to advance to the winner’s bracket in the double-elimination tournament. The next day, Otto’s 3 ⅓ shutout innings in relief led Rice to a tight 4-3 win over No. 2 seed Old Dominion University. The win meant Rice would get a chance to qualify for the championship game on Saturday in a rematch with FAU. The Owls’ offense erupted early in a 13-2 win to give Rice its ninth appearance in the C-USA title game in 12 years.
On Sunday, Rice took full advantage of its opportunity to turn what once looked like a lost season into one of the most memorable campaigns in program history. The Owls went 18-4 in their last 22 games to rally from the depths of the standings to the conference championship — and they are not done yet. The NCAA tournament will begin Friday. Rice received a No. 3 seed in its four team regional, where it will compete against No. 1 seed Louisiana State University, No. 2 seed Southeastern Louisiana University and No. 4 seed Texas Southern University. Rice will open the tournament on Friday, June 2nd at 7 p.m. CT against Southeastern Louisiana. The regional will be played in LSU's Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge. LSU will maintain home-field advantage until the College World Series as the fourth seed in the nation. This regional is a near rematch of last season, when Rice narrowly lost out to LSU after eliminating Southeastern Louisiana. Otto said the other teams in the Owls’ regional should watch out.
“I feel like we can beat anybody in the country right now because we’re on a roll, playing as a team and playing for each other,” Otto said.
Update May 29, 2017 12:30PM: Article updated to include the Owls' regional bracket in NCAA Tournament
Edit May 29, 2017 2:32PM: A previous version of this article stated the LSU was the top seed in the nation. They are the fourth seed in the nation. Oregon State is the first seed.