Rice goes from bottom up to win regional
Even if it meant climbing out of the losers' bracket and claiming three games over the next two days, Graham believed his veteran team had the gumption to do just that.
"I think this team likes each other so well, they just didn't want to quit playing," Graham said.
The Owls proved their venerable 73-year-old coach a prophet, culminating with a 13-4 victory over Kansas State on Monday to complete a dramatic sweep of their final three games of the Houston Regional.
"It's always great to win, but it's even better when you come out of the losers' bracket," Graham said. "I think it speaks to the character of this team."
Rice matched its season high with 20 hits, ripping through a wilting KSU bullpen. The Owls put the game away with a six-run fourth inning punctuated by a long, three-run homer by catcher Diego Seastrunk, who had struggled most of the second half of the season.
As he continued to battle his way out of a frustrating 8-for-57 slump, Seastrunk was thankful merely to be playing at his lowest moments.
"It's definitely been a struggle this year, and I'm thankful that Coach Graham kept me in the lineup," Seastrunk said. "He could have easily put me on the bench because I wasn't producing for the team."
That confidence paid off when Seastrunk started hitting during the final two weeks of the regular season. It carried over into the Conference USA tournament and into the playoffs, where his team most needed it.
Seastrunk was one of Rice's most consistent players in the regional, hitting .318 with two homers and seven RBIs during the Owls' five tournament games.
The Owls received contributions up and down the lineup in Monday's victory. Five players collected at least three hits, and Rick Hague and Seastrunk each had three RBIs.
And their depleted bullpen -- supposedly the team's biggest weakness -- got a lift from freshman right-hander Matthew Reckling. In Reckling's last four games coming into the tournament, he had an ERA of 24.30 with more than twice as many walks as strikeouts.
But those struggles didn't faze him when he had an opportunity to rescue his team's season while pitching in the ballpark named for his grandfather.
"I was just waiting for my opportunity because I knew I was coming off a pretty bad outing and wanted to make up for it," said Reckling, who limited the Wildcats to a pair of unearned runs and three hits in his four-inning stint to earn the victory. "I knew the team needed me. I just tried to pound the fastball and let that incredible defense behind me work."
The victory boosted Rice (43-16) into the super regionals for the fifth straight season. The Owls will meet up with LSU in an intriguing battle between two of the nation's traditional powers. The best-of three series will start Friday night in Baton Rouge, La.
The Owls have been to nine super regionals since the format was adopted in 1999. Only Miami and Florida State have been to that many during that span.
That winning history seemed to help them subdue the upstart Wildcats in the regional. In the past two games against KSU, the Owls outscored the Wildcats 21-4 and showed that experience in college baseball's biggest games clearly helps.
"I think they changed their approach starting last night," KSU coach Brad Hill said. "You could see guys starting hitting the ball to right field like they hadn't done in the first few games. They hitters made adjustments, and that gave us some problems."
And Hill didn't discount the lift the Owls got from Graham, who has been around the block a time or two in tournament play.
"That coach over there has a lot of wins," Hill said. "I'm sure he was coaching them along the way to help them figure that out."
Kansas State's loss capped the biggest season in the 109-year history of the program. The Wildcats, who were picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 before the season, finished off a 43-18-1 campaign in which they made their first tournament berth.
Hill acknowledged the magnitude of their accomplishment when he removed key players Justin Bloxom, Drew Biery, Jordan Cruz, Rob Vaughn and Dane Yelovich while they were playing defense with one out in the eighth inning. The sellout crowd of 4,589 -- mostly Rice fans -- responded by giving the KSU players a long standing ovation.
"It was a pretty emotional time for me," Hill said. "It hits hard what these guys have done. These guys did something that people have been trying to do for 109 seasons at Kansas State. I thought they deserved a little credit."
And it was even more touching for the players.
"Those Rice fans had been heckling us all weekend, and for them to do that [the standing ovation] really meant a lot to us," said Vaughn, who played high school baseball in nearby Humble, Texas. "It's something I can honestly say I'll never forget."