Rice had to reload after losing a number of mainstays from its back-to-back College World Series teams to the draft last year, and the Owls got off to a slow 6-5 start while its new faces adjusted. It didn’t take long for everybody to settle in, and Rice cruised to a 21-3 conference record and its third CUSA regular-season title in three years in the league. The Owls were stunned by Alabama-Birmingham and East Carolina in the conference tournament, but that might actually play to their advantage by giving their pitching staff extra time to rest up for the NCAA tournament. That staff is one of the nation’s deepest, with four quality starters in righthanders Ryan Berry (7-4, 3.10), Chris Kelley (5-1, 3.23), Matt Langwell (5-1, 4.38) and Mike Ojala (5-0, 4.21) to go along with a strong bullpen anchored by senior lefty Cole St.Clair (8-2, 2.88 with five saves). The lineup doesn’t have as much punch as in past years but still has power threats in catcher Adam Zornes (11 homers) and streaky outfielder Aaron Luna (nine homers). First baseman J.P. Padron (.354) took a major step forward this year, while third baseman Diego Seastrunk (.374 with 54 RBIs) and freshman shortstop Rick Hague (.343 with eight homers) emerged as the next wave of Rice superstars.
It’s been an atypical year for Texas, which slumped to 8-10 in the Big 12 when Oklahoma State swept the Longhorns in Austin on April 20. Texas bounced back by winning its final three conference series, culminating in a sweep of rival Texas A&M, but still finished in fifth place in the regular-season standings. The ‘Horns carried their momentum over to the conference tournament, going 3-1 to win the championship, but they were snubbed for a regional host and punished further by being sent to the same regional as No. 5 national seed Rice. Junior outfielder Kyle Russell recovered from a very slow start to hit .297 with 15 home runs, and every starter is capable of hitting the ball out of the park now and then. Texas has an intelligent lineup that excels at making adjustments on the fly, and there are no easy outs, starting with leadoff man Michael Torres (.344 with 35 walks and 15 strikeouts in 224 at-bats). But the key to Texas’ second-half surge has been the solidification of its weekend rotation. Freshman righty Chance Ruffin (7-3, 2.04) has emerged as the staff ace, and veterans Kenn Kasparek (4-3, 3.95) and Austin Wood (6-3, 4.58) have pitched well behind him.
St. John’s went 20-7 in Big East play to win the conference’s regular-season title, and the Red Storm contended to host a regional until going 0-2 at the conference tournament. The Johnnies gained valuable experience in the Myrtle Beach regional a year ago and have plenty of key players remaining from that team, including athletic outfielders Brian Kemp (.359/.448/.484 with 16 stolen bases) and Chris Anninos (.275 with a team-leading 12 homers), but the lineup lacks power threats after Anninos. The strength of the team is its deep pitching staff, whose 3.72 ERA ranks 12th in the nation. Lefthanders Scott Barnes (9-0, 2.73) and George Brown (7-3, 3.92) are fierce competitors who won’t be cowed by the Longhorns or Owls, and closer Colin Lynch (3-1, 3.76 with 13 saves) brings good stuff and moxie to the bullpen.
Sam Houston State won the Southland Conference tournament as a No. 4 seed for the second year in a row. Last year the Bearkats made quite a bit of noise in the Oxford regional, winning games against Troy and Southern Mississippi before falling to top-seeded Ole Miss in the finals. Senior outfielders Keith Stein (.354 with 10 homers and 56 RBIs), Bobby Verbick (.351 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs) and Todd Sebek (.356 with 24 steals in 27 attempts) give Sam Houston State a potent core with regional experience, and Baylor transfer Seth Hammock (.381 with 12 homers and 55 RBIs) adds even more punch to a lineup that leads all teams in this regional with 61 home runs. Freshman righthander Dallas Gallant (9-3, 5.15) has come on strong down the stretch, allowing just one run in a complete-game win in a Southland tournament win against Northwestern State, but he’ll have his hands full with Rice in the opener. If he can keep the Owls at bay, the Bearkats’ explosive offense could power them to an upset.