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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 — Houston, TX

Baseball clinches conference title with sweep of Houston

By Jessica Cannon     5/15/08 7:00pm

There were many things to cheer about as the fifth-ranked baseball team played its final home series last weekend. With a sweep over rival University of Houston, the Owls (39-11, 18-3 C-USA) secured the regular season Conference USA crown, marking Rice's 13th conference title in a row dating back to 1996. In addition to the team accolades, two players were announced to be in the running for significant national collegiate baseball awards, and three were honored for their academic achievements this semester. And with the graduations of seniors Will McDaniel and Cole St.Clair last Saturday, the team had even more cause for celebration before the contest against the Cougars.Most pressing on the Owls' minds at the moment, however, is their series against Tulane University, which opened Thursday in New Orleans, Louis., and will continue tomorrow. Tulane (36-15, 13-6 C-USA) is not likely to go down easily; outside of facing the Owls, the Green Wave have dominated conference play. Tulane will rely heavily on the arm of pitching phenom Shooter Hunt, a junior with a 1.97 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 77.2 innings pitched.

The C-USA runner-up should provide a good warmup for the Owls as they prepare for the C-USA Championship Tournament, which runs May 21-25 at Tulane.

According to sophomore starter Ryan Berry, graduation's completion has allowed the team to turn its sights solely to the diamond.

"Everybody can put all their focus on baseball now," Berry said. "I'm very confident in our team."

However, if graduation was a distraction before, the Owls did not let on. Over the last month, Rice has gone on an 11-1 run, which began with a sweep of conference opponent East Carolina University from April 18-20. The Owls rocked the Pirates (36-16, 11-10 C-USA) over the three-game sweep by outscoring them 22-8, including a 7-1 victory to finish the home series.

The Owls then returned home and defeated Sam Houston State 3-2 to win their twelfth straight game behind the bats of junior left fielder Aaron Luna and sophomore second baseman Jimmy Comerota. St.Clair prevented the Bearkats from rallying in the eighth and ninth innings to earn his second save of the season.

Rice then went back on the road against the University of Central Florida and lost the first game of the series, going down 4-2 to snap its season-high 12-game win streak.

A new win streak started just a day later, as the Owls took the series with a pair of one-run victories. After a 10-day hiatus the Owls took on Texas State University at home and won handily, 9-1, before facing Oklahoma State University, ranked seventh at the time. After a couple early home runs from designated hitter Derek Myers and junior center fielder Jared Gayhart, Rice's relief corps managed to stifle any hopes of a Cowboy comeback.

This past weekend the Owls faced off with their cross-town rival, the University of Houston. The Cougars (30-21, 11-10 C-USA) struck first on Friday evening, putting a run on the scoreboard in the third inning. Rice quickly answered with four runs in the bottom of the third, and from there on the Owls' bats were hot. Senior first baseman J. P. Padron had three hits, as did his Myers, Luna and sophomore third baseman Diego Seastrunk. Berry went seven innings with four strikeouts to earn his sixth win.

Saturday's game, which started as a tight pitchers' duel between Kelley and Cougars pitcher John Touchton, provided an emotional lift for the team in the seventh inning. With the Owls down 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh, junior Jess Buenger, visibly hampered by the leg injury which has recently sidelined him, had a pinch hit single to spark a two-run rally. The Owls then pulled away in the eighth, adding six runs in a burst that included a two-run double by freshman designated hitter Doug Simmons. St.Clair then closed out the game for his fifth save of the season.

Luna, who was named C-USA Hitter of the Week on Monday, carried his squad during the final game. The junior went 4-5 with six RBIs and a three-run home run to help lead Rice to a 12-6 victory.

Despite their nearly unstoppable conference run, Buenger said the team's goal does not stop with a C-USA championship.

"That's the goal, to get [to the College World Series] and win there," Buenger said. "But we know the road that is ahead of us. We've been there the last two years, and we know what it takes, we just have to go out and do it."

Rice's recent success has not been limited solely to on-the-field triumphs. ESPN The Magazine named senior pitcher Chris Kelley to the All-District First-Team and Comerota and St.Clair to the All-District Second-Team. St.Clair has also been nominated as one of ten finalists for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award, which will be given in Omaha during the College World Series. Lastly, junior catcher Adam Zornes has been named to the Johnny Bench Award watch list, an award given annually to the best collegiate catcher.

Head coach Wayne Graham said Zornes has quietly become a leader on the team, and has contributed in many ways to the team's success this season.

"He's an outstanding receiver and pitch caller, he throws well, and his bat has been a huge plus," Graham said. "He blocks the plate well, and he's showing surpassing toughnes. He's not only been a good player, but he's been a great example for the team.

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