Orlando, Florida had some Disney World magic for the Rice Baseball team last weekend, as the Owls earned wins in two of three games at the University of Central Florida Tournament to kick-start an optimistic 2018 campaign.

After last season’s epic run to the NCAA tournament, which included four consecutive wins to capture the Conference USA championship, Rice head coach Wayne Graham reinforced his confidence that this year’s squad could be even better. The Owls responded to their coach’s belief with a thrilling 8-7 victory over Samford in the opening game, sparked by two-run walk off homer in the bottom of the ninth inning by senior first baseman Chace Sarchet.

Rice followed up its dramatic season opener with an equally nail-biting sequel against tournament host UCF. After Sarchet and senior outfielder Ryan Chandler scored in the top of the ninth inning to put the Owls up 5-2, Rice seemed destined for a 2-0 season start. UCF, sparked by a lively home crowd, translated a fight-til-the-end mentality into two runs in the game’s last inning with two outs, seeding doubt in Rice’s assurance. UCF’s hope quickly turned to dismay, however, when junior shortstop Ford Proctor made a spectacular leaping grab to clinch the final out and grant Rice a 5-4 victory.

Key to the win over the Golden Knights was a solid outing from sophomore starting pitcher Matt Canterino. The Owls’ ace sacrificed only two earned runs in his first start of the season. Canterino said he was mostly pleased with his effort but he would have preferred to stay in the game for another inning or two.

“I did a lot of stuff that I wanted to do early on,” Canterino said. “I was filling it up with my slider and it was getting past a lot of guys. I lost a lot of steam at the end, which I wasn’t too happy about. I’ve gotta keep pounding the strike zone late in the game.”

Only nationally ranked University of Virginia could halt the Owls’ early-season momentum. Despite sophomore starting pitcher Addison Moss’s best attempt to shield Rice’s undefeated tournament run, the Cavaliers’ trio of hurlers were simply too powerful for the Owls’ lineup. Proctor was the sole Rice batter with multiple hits, and only two others, Sarchet and junior catcher Dominic DiCaprio, were able to muster a hit. Virginia’s offense fared better, scoring one run in the fourth off of a bases-loaded double play and adding to their cushion with a seventh-inning two-run double from third baseman Justin Novak.

Graham told his team after the game to keep the loss in perspective; according to the head coach, Rice players and fans should feel upbeat and bullish on Rice’s outlook this year.

“We had an undisciplined day at the plate,” Graham said. “It’s a learning experience, but we will get better. We did well in a hard tournament.”

At the time of print, Rice’s game against Texas State University on Tuesday night was ongoing. Next on the slate for the Owls is a four-game series against No. 12 Stanford University from Feb. 22 to 25 in Palo Alto, California. Rice split last season’s series with the Cardinal, 2-2 at Reckling Park.