Coming off their 19th consecutive conference championship and 40-win season, Rice will compete to earn their 20th straight trip to the postseason and advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. Rice, selected by Conference USA coaches as the unanimous favorite to once again win conference, has not been to Omaha since their three-year run ended in 2008.The 2015 Owls completed a 42-20 season last year (23-7 in Conference USA play) and earned both the regular season and C-USA tournament championships in 2014. With preseason rankings of no. 13 on d1baseball.com and no. 15 on Baseball America, many believe the Owls will be able to continue their conference streak.This season, Rice returns a slew of high-profile pitchers, including junior all-conference pitchers Blake Fox and Matt Ditman. Last season, Rice ranked second in C-USA with a 2.56 team ERA, compared with the conference’s average of 3.41. Rice looks to build upon those pitching statistics and allow the pitching staff to lead the team deep into the postseason. Starting Pitchers Fortunately for the Owls, the Rice Owls pitching staff is returning nearly all of their 2014 rotation and is expected to be one of the top programs in the country. Last season, right-handed pitcher Zech Lemond was drafted in the third round of the MLB draft by the San Diego Padres. With the exception of Lemond, a multitude of pitchers have returned to the roster.Now in his 10th season with Rice, Pitching Coach Pat Hallmark said the team’s pitching staff will help the team win a lot of games.“We got a lot of guys back from last year, which means we expect to add to last season’s success,” Hallmark said. “They [all] have good stuff, [and] the biggest thing with our guys is to always throw strikes. If we get a lot of strikes from our pitchers, we feel very confident that they will have good games.” Hallmark said he knows two of his most reliable and experienced pitchers, juniors Kevin McCanna and Blake Fox, will be on the mound for the opening series against Texas.“We think Kevin and Blake will certainly be in there somewhere over the weekend,” Hallmark said. “The other two we are not sure about but we do know they will be very capable and compete at a high level.” 6-foot-4, 225-pound sophomore pitcher Jon Duplantier looks to have solidified a spot in the weekend rotation, having had a successful summer playing in the California Collegiate League. With a fastball capable of hitting 95 on the radar guns and a power slider, he was named the top prospect of the CCL and will be heavily relied on this season.Additionally, right-hander McCanna, who spent much of last year as the Friday night starter, is back and has shown command in intrasquad games thus far. He went 8-3 on the mound last year and was second on the team in both wins and innings, pitching behind only fellow teammate and All-American Blake Fox. Fox is coming off a season in which we went 12-0 (9-0 against Conference USA opponents) and was a finalist for the College Baseball Hall of Fame National Pitcher of the Year. This year, Fox was named the preseason favorite for Pitcher of the Year in C-USA. Closer Junior reliever Matt Ditman was the surprise story of 2014. Ditman emerged as a dominant pitcher for the Owls last season. The former bullpen catcher appeared in 26 games for Rice and had nine saves on the year. His 1.83 earned run average and opponent hitters’ batting average of .198 on the season earned him preseason All-Conference honors this year. He is the only relief pitcher to have made the list. Ditman discussed being recognized by the conference for his achievements, and said he believes the important accolades come when the preseason honors can become postseason. “I am honored and happy to have gotten [recognized],” Ditman said. “But at the same time, I’d rather see postseason all-conference as opposed to preseason. I really want to focus on receiving postseason accolades for the sake of my teammates.” When Ditman looks at his fellow pitchers, he sees experienced guys who have tasted success. According to Ditman, he feels the Owls have the potential for another strong season. “When you look at our pitching staff, it’s a lot of guys who have already displayed success and have the capability to succeed at this level,” Ditman said. “We have a lot of potential to do something really special as a pitching staff.” Other notable pitchers for the Owls include juniors Ryan McCarthy and Austin Orewiler, who are midweek starter candidates. Additionally, junior Jordan Stephens is set to return from Tommy John surgery this season. In 2013, he led the Owls in innings pitched with 118.2 and recorded 100 strikeouts. Notable freshman standouts this year have been Ricky Salinas and Glenn Otto, who have the potential to see significant action. Hitters On the opposite side of the ball, the Owls have many gaps to fill, having lost five of their nine offensive starters last season. Seniors Keenan Cook (RF), Michael Aquino (LF), Shane Hoelscher (3B), Chase McDowell (DH/RHP) and junior Skyler Ewing (1B) were either lost to graduation or drafted by MLB teams. Hitting Coach Clay Van Hook, in his fourth year as the Owls’ coach, talked about the highly restructured lineup for 2015. According to Van Hook, replacing the departed players will not be easy, but he believes the team has the talent to continue its winning tradition.“You know it’s always tough to replace four out of your top five hitters, not just from [the] hitting standpoint, but from the leadership that a lot of those guys had,” Van Hook said. “We feel we brought in a very athletic group of kids that we know will have a good future here at Rice.” Ahead of facing no. 10 ranked Texas, Van Hook said he needs his hitters to remain calm and realize that, in the game of baseball, composure in all situations is a must. “In terms of preparing the guys for Texas, it’s opening weekend and the juices are going to be flowing, [and] the adrenaline is going to be there,” Van Hook said. “The biggest thing for the young guys is to keep [their] composure and stay in the moment. I think the guys are prepared and [have done] a good job hitting in practice and intra-squads, so hopefully they are ready.” Infield Returning for the Owls is the sure-handed duo of middle infielders, junior shortstop Leon Byrd and senior second baseman Ford Stainback. Both are effective runners and excellent hitters capable of hitting the ball to all areas of the field. Rounding out the infield is junior Connor Teykl at first base and junior college transfer Grayson Lewis at third base. In his first year with the Owls, Lewis said he is excited about being part of a team he claims is the most talented he’s ever been on.“It’s all been very exciting and really different from junior college [playing for Rice],” Lewis said. “This is the most talented team I’ve ever been on and is an honor to be a part of it. They continue to amaze me with all their talent on the field … [and] I feel lucky to be on a club that has such great team chemistry.” Outfield The outfield for the Owls has considerable depth, thanks in part to the addition of talented freshmen. Returning from last year’s squad is Charlie Warren, who is expected to transition to right field after spending most of his time last season at center field. The other two outfield positions are undecided as of yet as multiple Owls ranging from freshmen Ryan Chandler and Tristan Gray to seniors John Williamson and Kirby Taylor have each received significant reps at left and center field. Sophomore outfielder Dayne Wunderlich has also emerged as a hard-hitting sophomore with athleticism and speed who may prove to be a real weapon for the Owls. Chandler projects to see significant playing time for the Owls. Entering his first season for Rice, he said he has learned much about the game at the collegiate level. “It’s a lot different [from] high school because the competition is much better,” Chandler said. “When you consider that everybody here was the best player on their high school team, you must turn it up a notch. You have to grind and give it your best every single day.”According to Chandler, the constant message he receives from his coaching staff and fellow teammates is to always remain confident at the plate.“The thing they have preached to us is being confident every time you are out there,” Chandler said. “It has really changed me personally as a hitter. Trusting them and trusting my teammates to help me and hold me accountable for what I’m supposed to do on the field has been key.” Catchers Senior John Clay Reeves and junior Hunter Kopycinski will share the duty behind the plate this season. Reeves is arguably the best hitter on the roster with a 2014 batting average of .317 and was named the Preseason Conference USA Player of the Year. Entering his senior season, Reeves will be a threat on both sides of the ball, especially when it comes to two of the most important aspects of the game: Calling pitches for the pitching staff and power hitting. Kopycinski is a defensive-minded catcher capable of catching multiple innings. Coaches agree he has shown improvement this offseason and Kopycinski has made a case to be inserted in the lineup on a more consistent basis this season. Outlook The Rice schedule includes notable non-conference games against many notable non-conference opponents. A few of these top-tier teams include Texas, Stanford University, Texas Christian University, the University of Arizona, the University of Houston and Sam Houston State University. Head Coach Wayne Graham, who earned his 1,000th Rice victory last season, said he enjoys playing these elite teams because it tests where Rice stands on a national scale. “You find out by playing good teams where you are and where you’ve got to go,” Graham said. “We think we can compete with [these top teams], and aside from these games being developmental it gives you a good power rating for later.” Entering his 24th year as head coach, Graham said he realizes the Owls streak of 19 straight conference championships and 20 straight NCAA tournament appearances is remarkable, but is not the ultimate goal of the season.“We always want to keep the string going because obviously it’s hard to get a streak like that going,” Graham said. “But we’d rather get to Omaha and win the national championship.” The 2015 season is set to begin this upcoming Friday, Feb. 13 at 6 p.m, when the Owls take on the University of Texas, Austin at Reckling Park.The last time the two teams played was the 2014 NCAA regional matchup where the Longhorns defeated Rice 3-2 in 11 innings and gave Rice their first of two losses in the regional tournament.