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Baseball preview: Bragga leads Owls into first season

Courtesy Rice Athletics

By Michael Byrnes     2/13/19 12:14am

For the first time in 27 years, Rice baseball will begin the season without the familiar visage of Wayne Graham at the helm. In his stead is the new captain of the Owls: 46-year-old Matt Bragga, who arrives at Rice with a quite legacy of success to build upon. 

Before coming to Rice, Bragga spent 15 years as the head coach of Tennessee Tech University. His first few years were none too successful. In his first three seasons, the team won fewer than a third of its games and failed to crack the top six in the Ohio Valley Conference standings. According to Bragga, though the losing was challenging, he never lost his faith in the team’s ability to become relevant on the national stage. 

“When I interviewed I said, ‘I will get this program to [the College World Series]. I don’t know how long, but [I will],” Bragga said. “We came a game short, but I always believed in that program.” 

Slowly but surely, the team’s tides began to turn. Tennessee Tech advanced to the NCAA Regionals in 2009, won its conference in 2010 and 2013, and accomplished both feats in 2017. But it was during the 2018 season that the team truly took a leap forward. Bragga’s team went 53-12, leading the nation in wins and setting both a school and conference record for wins in a season. The team’s offense led the country in several categories, including runs, hits, home runs and on-base percentage. For the first time under Bragga’s tenure, the team advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals, coming just one win short of making the College World Series in Omaha. Despite all this success, Bragga said the decision to leave Tennessee Tech to come to Rice was not difficult. 

“I’m a goal setter,” Bragga said. “I write goals down, and one of my [early] goals was I want[ed] to be an SEC coach. Rice is, to me, every bit of that “goal” I had when I was a young coach, of being in the SEC. We’re talking about the fifth-winningest program in college baseball since the year 2000. We’re talking about a team that’s been to Omaha seven times in recent memory, [that’s] won one national championship. As long as my wife and our kids were on board, it was a very easy decision, and they were on board.”

Bragga now takes over a program that parted ways with the coach under whom all this success was achieved. To some, this may seem an intimidating venture. But Bragga said he doesn’t see it that way.

“I respect what Coach Graham did, but I’m not focused there,” Bragga said. “It doesn’t even matter to me, other than how great of a guy he is and how great [a job] he did. My focus is totally on what I know and who I am and what I believe we’re going to accomplish in the future. And I’m confident about what’s going to happen in the future.”

Last year was Rice’s worst season in over two decades. The team struggled with injuries and with defense, among other issues, and ultimately finished with a losing record for the first time since 1991. But Bragga said he is confident that he has a roster to rival any team in the conference.

“This is not taking over a rebuild,” Bragga said. “This is not a totally demolished program. Now, we’ve got to stay healthy. But if we do — no, when we do — our plan is to win a championship this year, and hopefully multiple championships. I think we have a championship roster.”

One of the key steps on Rice’s road to future success is to improve its hitting. Of last year’s 12 Conference USA teams, the Owls were eighth in batting average, 10th in slugging percentage, and second in strikeouts. Bragga said his hitting philosophy can be boiled down to one key concept.

“Get a good ball to hit,” Bragga said. “Get a good ball to hit. Cause the better the ball I get to hit, the harder I’m going to hit it. The harder I hit it, the more chance I reach base. The more times I reach base, the more runs I score. The more runs I score, the more games I win. It all starts, if you go backwards: wins, runs, reach base, hit the ball hard, and rewind here; it all started with ‘get a good ball to hit.’ So we practice that every single day.”

But more than anything, Bragga said he’s itching to get started. According to him, he’s eager to see what this new challenge brings.

“When I’m here, when I’m at this field, when I’m coaching I’ll give you everything I’ve got,” Bragga said. “And I did that last year, did it the year before: I’ve done it for 23 years of coaching. But my wife told me the other day [that] she sees a little something different in me; a little extra flair, a little extra hop in the step,” Bragga said. “And I’m excited about that: I feel it too, a little extra vigor to see how great this can be.”

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