Critical season looms for Jose Cruz Jr. and the Rice baseball team
In about three and a half weeks, Rice baseball will kick off their season with their first pitch scheduled for Friday, Feb. 16 when they host the University of Notre Dame for a three-game series.
The Fighting Irish are part of a slate of tough competition that the Owls will face during the 2024 season, their inaugural one in the American Athletic Conference. Some other notable opponents include a home game against defending champions Louisiana State University and a weekend series against Stanford University, who were in the College World Series last year. The Owls also face tough competition within their conference headlined by East Carolina University, currently ranked No. 11 in the nation according to the 2024 D1Baseball preseason rankings.
Despite commemorating the 20th anniversary of Rice’s first-ever NCAA championship, the Owls faced a challenging season last year, struggling with a disappointing performance on the field. The Owls went 21-37 overall and won only nine of 30 games against opponents in the Conference USA, ranking third-to-last in their final season as a member of that conference. Furthermore, expanding to a comparison against all 305 Division 1 teams in the NCAA, Rice was ranked as the 167th-best team in Warren Nolan’s RPI rankings.
Jose Cruz Jr., who is entering his third year as the head coach of the Owls’ baseball program, hopes to build upon the upward trajectory that he’s had so far. Having won more games last year, 21, than he did in his first season leading his alma mater, 17, Cruz Jr. also brought in a top recruiting class to help the program for the next four years. After going unranked in the top 100 recruiting classes in 2023, the Owls’ 2024 recruiting class ranks 70th in the nation with 13 new high school commits. The top 100 recruiting class not only sets the Owls’ up for a successful future, but can also pay dividends this upcoming season. Thus, the Owls’ have high expectations to hit the ground running in the AAC, which is a comparatively weaker conference than the C-USA in baseball.
Cruz Jr. will hope that strong recruiting, along with player development over the offseason, will help propel Rice to the relevancy that the program commanded during former head coach Wayne Graham’s legendary years leading Rice baseball. Player development is key for the Owls’ roster that saw only four players graduate last year and is returning most of their roster.
However, Cruz Jr. faces some significant challenges as he prepares for the Owls’ first season in the AAC. The offseason saw Cruz Jr. lose several key staff members including former assistant coaches Paul Janish and Rob Hardy. Janish, a player on the 2003 championship team and former major leaguer, was hired in November 2023 as the director of player development for the Chicago White Sox. Hardy, who joined the Owls coaching staff in 2021, left Rice to become the pitching coach for Gardner-Webb University. Cruz Jr. aims to overcome the loss of Janish and Hardy through several in-house hires; he promoted DC Arendas, the former director of player development, and Justin Asperegen, the former quality control assistant, to the assistant head coach position.
Although the coaching staff has new faces, it is imperative that the Owls show significant development and growth from their young roster to improve upon their disappointing performances over the last two years.
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Over the weekend, Rice Baseball secured a series win on the road against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, capturing victories on Feb. 23 and Feb. 24 with scores of 2-1 and 6-1, respectively. However, their quest for a sweep fell short as they suffered a 3-0 loss on Sunday afternoon.
The Rice women’s basketball team, which spent much of this season soaring near the top of the American Athletic Conference standings, extended their losing streak to a season-high three games on Sunday afternoon. In a battle of the Owls, Rice fell to Temple University, 75-66.