Everyone who follows Rice baseball knows the numbers: 23 straight NCAA tournament appearances. Seven College World Series appearances. One national championship. And if anyone doesn’t know them, they can see them as soon as they enter Reckling Park. A flag in left field celebrates the 2003 national champions, and various plaques, trophies and signs celebrate all of the College World Series teams and star players of the past.
That history will never be forgotten. Rice spent the better part of two decades as one of the nation’s best baseball programs. Those years were magical, and they should be celebrated forever. But that period is over. Sorry, Rice. The baseball program just isn’t elite anymore.
In truth, it has not been elite for years. Rice last appeared in a Super Regional in 2013. And a College World Series? Not since 2008. The Owls’ win totals have decreased steadily since their last Super Regional appearance: 44 wins in 2013, 42 in 2014, 37 in 2015, 38 in 2016 and 33 last season. It has been a slow, consistent fall from the pinnacle of the college baseball world.
Ten years ago, a conference championship was a foregone conclusion, not a lofty goal. The NCAA Tournament was an expectation, not an achievement. And while bad losses happened, Rice almost never got swept, much less by a conference foe.
Now, the Owls are a very good, but no longer great, program. In the past two years, Rice has been swept in the opening series of conference play both times. Its NCAA Tournament hopes last year hinged on a miracle run through the conference tournament. And after winning the regular season conference title six straight years from 2010 to 2015, the Owls haven’t finished better than fourth in the conference standings the past two seasons.
This year’s start has only reinforced Rice’s standing in the college baseball landscape. The Owls are 9-13, not quite bad enough to warrant a full-on panic but mediocre enough to indicate that like last season, it’s going to be a battle for this team to make the NCAA Tournament.
Junior Ford Proctor and senior Ryan Chandler have been superb so far, batting .405 and .333 respectively, and newcomers Braden Comeaux and Trei Cruz have impressed as well. The Owls also have had some great wins, beating nationally-ranked teams like the University of Central Florida and Texas Christian University. But they have been woefully inconsistent, dropping close contests when the defense or bullpen falters or getting downright outplayed by superior teams.
Still, the expectations of greatness remain. As long as the fans who followed the Owls through their glory years are around, each Rice team will be compared to those of the early 2000s. Every win will remind the long-tenured supporters of a great team from years ago, and every loss will be a sign that the team just isn’t as good as it was at its height.
Those comparisons will never end. Now that Rice does not have the luxury of being at the top of the college baseball world, the expectations are almost unreasonable. As the program continues to settle among the good-but-not-great teams in college baseball, each season will add to fans’ disappointment.
There is still a chance this year’s team could make the NCAA Tournament. It would be the 24th straight appearance for Rice, which currently holds the third longest active streak in Division I. And hey, anything can happen. If Rice makes the tournament, some hot pitching could carry it to the Super Regional round or further. That won’t change the fact that the program is stuck in the mud. It’s not moving forward; it’s just trapped in the middle. And it’s hard to see any signs that it could get much better than this. Good but not great is the new normal for Rice baseball, and it’s here to stay.