While football, basketball and baseball may garner attention-grabbing headlines week in and week out, it's difficult to find two other teams at Rice that have been more consistent in winning than the women's and men's cross country teams. With experienced squads returning for both teams, there are expectations of the Owls sweeping the Conference USA Championship on Oct. 31 at Wildcat Country Club in Houston.
This spring has not been an easy one for the women's track and field team. Plagued by injury after injury, much more of the team has spent time in recovery mode, instead of training mode, than Head Coach Jim Bevan would have liked. Despite all this adversity, the always-competitive Owls have once again found a way to return to peak form just in time for the conference meet.
With the Conference USA Outdoor Championship being held at Rice Track/Holloway Field this past weekend, the men's track team aimed to use this home field advantage to help propel them to a top-three finish at the C-USA Outdoor Championship for the first time since 2008. But the perfect weather and familiar surroundings couldn't give the Owls the 30 extra points needed to surpass the University of Tulsa, as Rice finished fourth for the third straight year. As always, the Owls had strong showings in the decathlon and distance events, but had a few surprises including the shot put and 4x400 meter relay results.
The 66th-ranked Owls had little hope of making the NCAA Tournament via an at-large invite, so the Conference USA Championship would be their only avenue for furthering their season. Given a fourth seed, the women's tennis team enjoyed a first round bye before taking on the University of Central Florida (12-8), the host school. The fifth seeded Knights could not keep up with Rice's well-tuned doubles pairs as sophomore Daniella Trigo and senior Jessica Jackson started off the competition with an 8-3 victory. Senior Rebekka Hanle and junior Ana Guzman finished their match next by a score of 8-4 to give Rice the doubles point. Jackson and Guzman increased the Owls' lead to 3-0 before freshman Dominique Harmath finished of UCF's Alexis Rodriguez in two quick sets to clinch the victory for Rice. All in all, it was a perfect match for the Owls, who failed to drop a set during the entire quarterfinal matchup.
After dropping both games of a doubleheader in Birmingham, Ala. to the University of Alabama-Birmingham (27-25, 9-15 C-USA) on April 23, the baseball team fell two games behind Southern Miss in the Conference USA standings with just three weekends of play to go. Needing their second late-season push in as many years to get themselves in position for their 16th consecutive C-USA share of the title, the Owls headed across town to Cougar Field for a three-game set against the University of Houston (24-27, 11-10 C-USA) after a midweek win over Stephen F. Austin State University (31-20) by a score of 9-1.
Almost four years ago now, my friend Jocelyn Wright, fellow O-Week group member and soon-to-be assistant news editor, and I wandered upstairs to the Thresher office during the activity fair. Both of us had aspirations of journalism greatness, she via hard-hitting news stories and I covering the greats of the Rice baseball diamond. We ran into Evan Mintz (Hanszen '08) and Stephen Whitfield (Sid Rich '08), then-executive editor and editor-in-chief, who were not-so-frantically beginning work on that year's O-Week edition. They ushered us into the office, equally eager to see fresh faces and skeptical of our capabilities.
Despite being one of the top groups on the men's track team last year, this year has been somewhat trying for the pole vaulters, save for Saturday's efforts by freshman Ben Timmer and senior Garrett Stafford, who had their best vaults of the year at the University of Texas-El Paso Invitational. Timmer, who had not cleared the bar in one outdoor meet this season, came through with a fifth-place finish after vaulting 4.66 meters (15' 3.5"), and Stafford turned in a solid performance as well with a 4.51 meter (14' 9.5") vault that gave him sixth place. Head Coach Jon Warren (Jones '88) spoke about the meet from the vaulters' standpoint.
Before the interview even started, Head Coach Jon Warren (Jones '88) stated, "Let's talk about [the] UTEP [Invitational]." Clearly Warren's directive nature was not coming from a disappointment at the way the men's track team had performed at the 84th Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays in Austin and Trinity University's Tiger Relays in San Antonio, but rather because there were just 14 Owls spread among the two meets. Still, junior Lee Johnson's performances in the 110 and 400 meter hurdles at the Tiger Relays were something to talk about. Johnson took first place in the 110 meter hurdles with a season-best time of 14.95 seconds, currently the eighth-best time by any Conference USA runner. Additionally, Johnson's time of 55.89 seconds was good for second place in the 400 meter hurdles. Warren was pleased at the way several different athletes have stepped up each weekend.
After stranding a school-record 18 runners on base in a midweek loss to Louisiana-Lafayette (19-13), the Owls (24-13, 6-3 C-USA) faced another tough task in the pitching rotation for the Pirates. Entering the weekend series, East Carolina University (22-11, 4-5 C-USA) boasted the best team Earned Run Average in the conference and a top-three staff overall ERA in the country. To combat the ECU arms on Friday night was Austin Kubitza, the freshman whose success has begun to garner attention on the national level.
After a late charge up the leaderboard at the 60th Border Olympics on Mar. 25-26, the golf team looked to do the same at the Bancorp South Intercollegiate hosted by the University of Mississippi in Madison, Miss. Instead, Mother Nature intervened, shortening the tournament to 36 holes and leaving the Owls in 13th place after the two rounds.
Three meets into the season, and the women's track team is beginning to hit its stride and fall back into the rhythm of competition. With team members who had started the season injured slowly coming back into action (seniors Alex Gibbs and Nicole Mericle), the Owls are finding their way back to full force.
Even with three or four freshmen regularly in the starting lineup for Head Coach Wayne Graham, things are starting to look awfully similar to this same time in 2010 for the Rice Owls baseball team. Flash back a year ago, when Rice (21-11, 4-2 C-USA) opened the Conference-USA schedule by dropping two of three to the Memphis Tigers to fall to just 13-12 on the season. The national media was down on Rice, with the pitching struggling and the team's conference championship streak looking like it would be in jeopardy.
With just a handful of events left in their outdoor track careers, seniors Michael Trejo and Connor Hayes wasted no time in continuing to update their personal record books at the Stephen F. Austin Alumni Invitational in Nacogdoches, Texas on Saturday. After a personal best time in the 1,500 meter run at the Texas Southern University Relays of 3:57.02, Trejo dropped his time down by nearly three seconds at Fletcher Garner Track, winning the event with a time of 3:54.05.