(Note: This article is
part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball
programs going into the 2011 season. To
view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
In 19 seasons as the head baseball coach at prestigious Rice University in Houston, Wayne Graham has become intimately familiar with high-pressure situations.
Advancing to the College World Series in Omaha seven times in 12 years and winning one NCAA National Championship (in 2003) raises the bar and accompanying expectations considerably, which can certainly lead to added and, perhaps, unwanted pressure.
But that’s nothing compared to what the holiday season can dish out.
“As soon as we get (past) Christmas, we’ll be fine,” Graham said with a chuckle during a mid-December telephone conversation with Perfect Game. “There’s no pressure like Christmas. Baseball is no problem, but trying to find your wife the right gift is the real pressure.”
If Graham handles the pressures of Christmas shopping with the same aplomb he handles the pressures of presiding over one of the nation’s top collegiate baseball programs, it’s safe to say Mrs. Graham has fared quite nicely when she’s opened her husband’s gifts over the years.
Graham, who is 74, will begin his 31st season of college coaching – his 20th at Rice – when the Owls host Stanford for the first of three games on Feb. 18, 2011. He will put a team on the field that features All-American third baseman and 2010 Dick Howser Trophy winner Anthony Rendon, and is coming off a 40-23 season that ended with a 16thstraight NCAA Regional appearance and a 15th straight conference championship.
After watching his team during its fall practice session, he thinks the 2011 Owls can be even better.
“We had some surprises (in 2010). We thought our pitching was better going in then it actually turned out to be,” Graham said. “We didn’t really have a pitcher that had the adequate velocity that they have now. We were not able to dominate people pitching-wise.
“Things could have been better but we didn’t really have quite what we have this year. We’ve got depth and I think we’ve got a chance to do something. I think we’ve got more upside than we had last year.”
It will be interesting to see if that “upside” will bring enough to the table to maintain the sustained level of excellence that Rice has experienced since the early 1990s. The Owls played at the CWS seven times between 1997 and 2008, second only to Miami’s eight appearances over the same stretch. Rice won the 2003 CWS title, the school’s first team national championship in any sport.
Graham took over the Rice University program in time for the spring season of 1992 after spending the previous 11 years at San Jacinto College, a juco also located in Houston. His success at San Jac was phenomenal, leading the Gators to five National Junior College Athletic Association national championships in six years from 1985 through 1990.
“The only person who wanted me to come (to Rice) was my wife (Tanya); everybody else thought it was dumb because I had a lock at San Jac. We were going to be close every year because we had really got it going there,” Graham said. “I knew that there were possibilities here, but all we had when I first came here was a big recruiting area and the prestige of the education (offered at Rice).”
Graham felt if the Owls were able to accomplish even a little bit in his early years as head of the program, the university would divert more of its limited athletic resources his direction. He wasted no time getting started.
Rice qualified for the Southwest Conference Tournament in Graham’s third season (1994), advanced to the first NCAA Regional in school history and won 43 games in ’95, won the SWC tourney and advanced to a second straight regional the next year, and in 1997 won 47 games and made its first trip to CWS. The Owls were right back in Omaha in 1999.
“We thought if we could do more they would increase our resources, and that’s what we were able to do,” Graham said. “We still had a shabby stadium when got to Omaha in ’97 and ’99, but the fact we got to Omaha allowed us to get Reckling Park, which opened up everything else.”
Reckling Park is Rice’s beautiful, 5,300-hundred capacity on-campus stadium that offers an outfield view of the massive Texas Medical Center. The stadium upgrade not only further beautified an already beautiful campus, but gave Graham another valuable recruiting tool, which is important in the ultra-competitive world of college baseball recruiting.
Rice University has been referred to as “The Harvard of the South” because of its distinguished academic reputation. It is regularly ranked among the top-10 academic institutions in the country and gaining admission can be difficult for prospective students – and student ball players.
“It’s a selling point and it’s a limiting point because we never deal with more than 40 percent of a (potential) recruiting class. Some years it’s 30 percent. The rest of them can’t get (admitted) here,” Graham said. “Other teams can negative-recruit and say, ‘Well, it’s tough there,’ but the thing is we’ve had enough Draft choices and 1st-rounders that we can say, ‘No, it’s not that tough.’ If you can get in here, you can make it.”
Graham uses everything Rice has to offer to his advantage.
“It’s a more intimate setting here at Rice, which allows, theoretically, for a better education,” Graham said. “It’s a beautiful campus and we’re in the heart of a very, very nice area of Houston. It’s a good setting, but the problem we have sometimes is even the Houston kids want to go away from home.”
The Houston area – which Graham calls “amazing” in terms of youth baseball – has become a hotbed for college recruiters. Graham can’t always keep the top Houston players home and the whole dynamic of recruiting has changed during his long coaching tenure.
“There’s really no diamonds in the rough – everybody knows about everybody,” Graham said. “And through organizations like Perfect Game, that’s the reason for it. There (are) no secrets anymore – talent is isolated and displayed.
“It’s more whether you can get them in and whether you can convince them to come. We attend the various showcases to know who they are, but they’re (already) pretty well publicized.”
The 2011 Owls’ roster consists almost entirely of Texans, including 10 from Houston proper. And one of those hometown boys is Rendon, a junior who graduated from Houston Lamar High School in 2008 and on whom Graham lavishes extraordinary praise.
“There’s nobody I’ve ever coached that’s any better than Anthony,” said Graham, who also coached MLB All-Stars Lance Berkman at Rice and Andy Pettitte at San Jac. “It’s arguable about Berkman because he’s already done it the Major League level, but at this level Anthony and Berkman would be the top two players I’ve ever coached (at Rice).”
Rendon was named the National Player of the Year in 2010 after batting .394 with 26 home runs, 85 RBIs and 83 runs scored. He had an .801 slugging percentage, a .530 on-base percentage and hit 26 home runs while striking out 22 times. He also stole a team-high 14 bases in 18 attempts.
Rendon played for the Houston Heat at the 2007 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.
“Anthony is a great player and everybody knows that,” Graham said. “He’s also a leader, and he was probably a little more reticent about leading up until now, but now he’s a junior and I’m sure he’ll be an excellent team leader. He’s a complete player. He plays great defense and he can hit.”
Rendon suffered a broken ankle while playing over the summer, but will be at full strength in the spring. Perfect Game projects him to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 Draft.
Seven Rice Owls were selected in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft, but three more everyday position players and seven pitchers who made at least 15 appearances join Rendon on the 2011 roster. Junior outfielder/infielder Michael Fuda (.346, 7 HRs, 45 RBIs, 59 runs) and junior outfielder Jeremy Rathjen (.317, 13 HRs, 69 RBIs) are back, as are junior left-hander Taylor Wall (5-5, 4.45 ERA, 15 starts) and senior left-hander Doug Simmons (4-0, 2.66 ERA, 20 appearances).
Graham also welcomed a highly ranked recruiting class on campus in the fall. Right-hander Austin Kubitza was selected in the 7th-round of the Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, catcher Tyler Pearson went in the 38thround to the Cleveland Indians and right-hander John Simms was chosen in the 39thround by the Washington Nationals. All three chose to enroll in school.
All of the players mentioned above were active in Perfect Game events while in high school.
Graham is a native Houstonian and a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin. He played two years at Texas and professionally for 11 years, and enjoyed two brief stints in the Major Leagues – in 1963 when he appeared in 10 games for the Philadelphia Phillies and manager Gene Mauch, and in 1964 when he played 20 games for the New York Mets and manager Casey Stengel.
Graham called his now 20-year association with Rice University in his hometown “a good fit.” He has three years left on his contract and isn’t considering retiring anytime soon.
“It’s all about health and I don’t think it’s a question of desire,” he said. “I’m as fired up about it now as I ever was. That’s not the question. The question is you’ve got to stay healthy and I’ve been fortunate so far.”
What follows is a list of players on the 2011 Rice roster who either participated in Perfect Game events or created PG profiles while in high school. Click on the player’s name to view his complete PG profile:
Boogie Anagnostou – PG WWBA
Michael Aquino – PG WWBA
Andrew Benak – PG WWBA
Keenan Cook – PG WWBA
Tyler Duffey – PG WWBA
Matt Evers – PG WWBA
Anthony Fazio – PG WWBA
Michael Fuda – PG National Showcase/PG South Underclass
Daniel Gonzales-Luna – PG WWBA
Derek Hamilton – PG WWBA
Brad Kottman – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Austin Kubitza – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Ryan Lewis – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Craig Manuel – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Connor Mason – PG National/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Will Maxwell – PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Chase McDowell – PG South Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Jeremy Rathjen – PG WWBA
Matthew Reckling – PG Sunshine South/PG WWBA
Anthony Rendon – PG WWBA
John Simms – PG WWBA
Tyler Spurlin – PG WWBA
Taylor Wall – PG WWBA
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