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College : : Story
Conference USA surges
Kendall Rogers         Allan Simpson        
Published: Wednesday, February 01, 2012

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It has been four seasons since Rice last reached the College World Series.

That’s simply hard to imagine when you consider the Owls made the June trek to Omaha five times last decade, including a 2003 campaign where the Owls captured the program’s first and only national title.

Though the Owls lately have had trouble getting to Omaha, the program hasn’t taken a significant step back or anything like that. The Owls remain consistent national contenders, but haven’t had things go their way in the NCAA postseason.

That should change this spring, as the Owls return several key cogs from a club that finished last season with a solid 42-21 overall record.

Pitching-wise, the Owls are in better shape this spring than they’ve been in a couple of seasons. Sensational sophomore Austin Kubitza spearheads the weekend rotation, while John Simms, who moves from starter to reliever this season, provides the Owls with an elite bullpen arm. The Owls also have high hopes for two-way player J.T. Chargois, who made a name for himself last summer with some impressive showings.

Rice also should be productive from an offensive standpoint. Michael Ratterree headlines the lineup, while the Owls are ecstatic to get talented outfielder Jeremy Rathjen back in the mix. Rathjen missed much of last season because of an injury.

While Rice is the Conference USA headliner and the league’s only true national title contender, the conference still has several teams with high aspirations.

East Carolina has the tough chore of replacing weekend starters Seth Maness and Brad Mincey, but once again will have a productive offense with third baseman Corey Thompson leading the way. Meanwhile, look for big-time campaigns on the mound from Kevin Brandt and Tyler Joyner.

UCF is one of the best stories in college baseball entering the season. The Knights were an afterthought in Conference USA just a couple of seasons ago. Now, after reaching the NCAA postseason last year, coach Terry Rooney’s club is ready to take another step forward. The Knights will be very solid offensively with Darnell Sweeney, Ronnie Richardson, D.J. Hicks and Travis Shreve leading the way. Meanwhile, look for starting pitcher Ben Lively and rising closer Joe Rogers to have big-time campaigns.

Southern Miss and Tulane also are worth watching. Both will have a legitimate chance to reach the NCAA postseason. Both also have some major holes to fill.

The Golden Eagles must rebuild their weekend rotation without Todd McInnis, while the Green Wave must improve offensively after finishing last season with a .257 average.



HOW THEY STACK UP
Overall/conference won-loss records from 2011 indicated; expectation level denoted -- College World Series= CWS, NCAA Super Regional= SR, NCAA Regional= R



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