Wayne Graham has seen a lot during his 37 years coaching college baseball. As far as recent history is concerned, however, Graham’s Rice Owls are in unfamiliar territory heading into this week’s Conference-USA baseball tournament at MGM Park.
The sixth-seeded Owls (27-29, 16-14) enter the week in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 23 years.
As Graham put it during Tuesday’s practice at D’Iberville High School, his team is going to have to continue to “scrap,” beginning with Wednesday’s 9 a.m. opener against Florida Atlantic (33-19-1, 18-12).
“Every day is about survival,” said Graham, at the tail end of his 26th season as Rice’s skipper.
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Even to get to this point in the season was a monumental achievement. The Owls were 6-17 overall at one point in the season and just 4-11 to open conference play. Rice flipped a switch midway through the season however, and finished 12-3 against C-USA foes to keep their post-season hopes alive.
“It got to a point where I said we’re going to have to win every conference series from now on,” Graham said, “and they did, five in a row.”
Graham credited the improved play of junior second baseman Tristan Gray for getting Rice to this point.
The former 37th round selection of the New York Mets didn’t appear in a game until March 14 and was hitting only .145 through April 11. Like Rice as a whole, Gray heated up and boosted his average to .296. He’s also hitting .318 against C-USA foes now. Not only has his bat played, but Gray has committed just two errors at second base.
“It was a big change in our team,” Graham said. “We really had a gap at second base and it seemed to affect everybody.”
If the Owls are to guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament they’ll need to win this week’s tournament, which concludes at 1 p.m. Sunday. Luckily for Rice, the preseason coaches selection to win the league has had plenty of success in the conference tournament. Rice has won the tournament six times and finished second twice more.
Gray acknowledged the weight of “the streak” is a perfect motivator.
“That’s in the back of our minds but we’re trying to take it one game at a time. We just want to control what we can control,” Gray said. “We definitely have the stuff to do it. We’re not going to give up. No matter where we’re at we’re always going to fight.”
NOTES: Avoiding free bases and allowing Rice to best manage its pitchers will be of the utmost importance, Graham said. While the Owls are third in C-USA with 446 strikeouts, they also have the second highest walk total at 285. ... Rice had three players honored by C-USA on Tuesday. Sophomore Dominic DiCaprio and junior Dane Myers were both Second Team All-Conference selections. Matt Canterino made the All-Freshman team.