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Commentary: A disappointing finish, but more than just a two-and-out

By Casey Michel     5/15/08 7:00pm

Well, that was quick."Owlmaha" was here, but if you took a break to fret over Willie Randolph or throw out your salmonella-laced tomatoes, you returned to find Rice's College World Series presence replaced by a sickening vacuum. In our seventh CWS appearance since 1997, the Owls choked their way to the program's fourth two-and-out in seven tries, but only its first since Notre Dame bounced the Owls with a 5-3 two-run walk-off bomb in 2002.

(Compounding the aggravation felt by coach Wayne Graham, both heartbreakers came from teams helmed by coach Paul Mainieri - whose wife, as those watching on ESPN well know, was celebrating her birthday both afternoons.)

I have little authority to compare those two instances - in 2002, Rice was only something that my General Tsao sat on - but I can certainly commiserate. The clips of Graham circa 2002, looking not a day older than 68, easily conveyed the ache the Irish had wrought, and it's never easy to see the gothic "R" go down in flames.

The shots of Rice's losses in 1997 and 1999 are equally disheartening, but hey, we had finally blitzed through the Omaha barrier, so what did we care if we put up less fight than a doped-out teddy bear?

The Promised of Land of 2003 will remain with us forever and yet, as that year fades, new images begin to bump memories of Townsend, Niemann and Humber - arguably the greatest college pitching trifecta ever seen - to the side. To call the 2006 offensive malaise a drought would be like calling the calling Red Sox Nation a tad bothersome. Making matters worse, Rice's dead lumber carried into the 2007 CWS, crimping our style and giving North Carolina a whole lot of unneeded confidence. Although the bats of the most-heralded class in Rice history finally woke up, the highest-remaining seed wilted with timidity and, thanks to a certain confused umpire, a definite sense of "what-if?"

That loss hurt, and it hurt like heck. No doubt Savery spent many sleepless nights roiling over his missed chance to earn Rice's second national championship, but at least his teams forced their way to the semifinals every year they spent in Omaha.

So looking back at the 2008 campaign, there's really no getting around it - Tuesday's loss was simply the worst we've encountered in the CWS.

I've heard the claims that just cracking the final eight should have been sufficient enough, that our mere presence warranted a chest-bump of pride and satisfaction. Really? Is that why, unlike the majority of teams in the tournament, Rice passed on the traditional dogpile following their clobbering of Texas A&M?

No, we expected the return to Omaha the second our 2007 season ended.

Maybe it didn't appear that way as we trudged our way through the Fresno St. fiasco, but there's simply no way Graham would have let his team come in content - we all know this. Still, the national beat-down we suffered on Sunday showed a definite lack of, well, what's the word? Desire? Competency? Fortitude?

Whatever the reason, Graham noted that the 17-5 loss - in which we allowed the most runs the CWS has seen since 2001 - should have served as a wake-up call. Chris Kelley certainly seemed to be energized, hurling nearly six innings of four-hit ball before giving up the rock to the greatest reliever in Rice's history.

The story-line was set: Cole St.Clair, who had turned down millions in the big leagues to return to Rice for one last chance at glory, held Rice's CWS hopes in his grizzled, talented hands.

Cole looked solid in his first few innings, giving up nothing but scratch hits and a lone double. With Owl fans across the nation exhaling sighs of relief, we knew a rematch with the Tar Heels was finally in order.

But all of a sudden, the Tigers had new life - courtesy of another feeble Owl attempt at defense - and before we could catch our breath, Rice's CWS dreams went the way of the eight-track or the passenger pigeon.

To say that I screamed into my bed for ten straight minutes would be stretching the truth, but not by that much. Seeing Cole end his career on the sourest of notes could not have stung more, and knowing that the victory had been sitting squarely on our plate spoiled the entire summer for all of us.

Granted, there were some positives to arise from the loss - at least Graham didn't have to wrestle with the decision to throw Ryan Berry again - but even those were tainted with failure. There was no growth, no satisfaction, no retribution.

Yes, this trip to Omaha was quick.

But it was far from painless.

- Casey Michel is a Brown College junior and former sports editor.

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