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January 29, 2008

Top 25 Countdown: No. 4 Rice

Head coach: Wayne Graham
Last season: 56-14, 22-2 in C-USA
Postseason: The Owls had another season to remember. After winning the Conference USA crown by 7 games, the Owls took care of business in Regional play and defeated Texas A&M in Super Regional action. They were unable to go the distance in Omaha.
2008 breakdown: Probable starters | Overview | Offense | Starting pitching | Bullpen | Outlook

Overview

Rice has been the model program for consistency, so it should come as no surprise that the Owls are back in the national title hunt.

After taking care of business in Regional and Super Regional action last season, the Owls suffered a familiar fate in Omaha they dropped two-straight games to North Carolina.

The Owls hope to leave no doubt this season.

RICE OWLS
Sophomore righty Ryan Berry hopes to build off an impressive first season.

Probable Starting Lineup
C Adam Zornes
1B J.P Padron
2B Jess Buenger
SS Rick Hague
3B Diego Seastrunk
OF Aaron Luna
OF Chad Mozingo
OF Jordan Dodson
DH Jared Gayhart
SP Ryan Berry
SP Matt Langwell
SP Cole St. Clair

While uncertainty surrounds the offense, the pitching staff is in outstanding shape.

Ryan Berry, Matt Langwell and Cole St. Clair spearhead the weekend rotation, while Lucas Luetge and Chris Kelley will log significant innings.

Like most teams, the Owls enter the spring with some question marks. However, we fully expect the offense to be better than people think.

Offense

Though we don't expect it, offensive production is the only thing that could hold this team back.

Rice enters the season without four of its top five hitters, but welcomes back Aaron Luna.

Luna batted .315 with 13 homers and 66 RBIs last season. He also slugged .570 and had a .447 on-base percentage. Additionally, he had 15 doubles, three triples and 134 total bases.

Jess Buenger and Diego Seastrunk must also rise to the occasion.

Buenger hit .306 with seven homers and 47 RBIs last season. He also slugged .468 and had a .404 on-base percentage. He ended 2007 with 12 doubles.

Seastrunk could be an electrifying player to watch. He hit just .304 last season, but knocked in 42 runs was impressive in Omaha.

The Owls are also counting on Jordan Dodson, J.P Padron and Adam Zornes for more production.

Also keep an eye on junior two-way player Jared Gayhart, who hit .339 with four homers and 42 RBIs last season.

Starting pitching

The Rice weekend rotation has stability.

After making a splash as a freshman, sophomore right-hander Ryan Berry hopes to follow up his first season with another solid campaign.

Berry went 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 122 2/3 innings of work last season. He also struck out 125 and walked 34, while opponents hit him at a .248 clip.

The Owls also welcome back junior right-hander Matt Langwell. The veteran went 8-2 with a 2.35 ERA in 84 1/3 innings of work last season. He also struck out 57 and walked 32, while opponents hit .206 off him.

Senior left-hander Cole St. Clair will begin the season as the Sunday starter. Graham has gone back and forth on whether St. Clair should be a starter. But in the end he believes St. Clair's progress is better monitored with him as a starter not a reliever.

If the Owls decide to put St. Clair back in the bullpen, they would then look to JUCO transfer Lucas Luetge as the Sunday starter. Senior right-hander Chris Kelley is another option.

Bullpen

Just a few weeks ago veteran left-hander Cole St. Clair was penciled in as the closer. But according to Coach Graham, the gritty vet will likely be a weekend starter.

With St. Clair moving to the weekend rotation to start the year the Owls must find someone else to fill the closer's role.

That chore could go to Jonathan Runnels, Bryan Price, Mike Ojala or Diego Seastrunk.

Runnels had a strong fall and had a 3.86 ERA in just 2 1/3 innings of work last season. Ojala logged 12 1/3 innings last season, while Price threw 10 1/3 innings.

Seastrunk is the most surprising name on the list. The sophomore is expected to have a productive offensive campaign, but there's a good chance he could end up as the closer.

According to Graham, Seastrunk had the best stuff during fall workouts. In 9 2/3 innings of work in the fall, he limited hitters to a .156 batting average. If Seastrunk closes, he will likely be limited to an inning of work per outing.

Outlook with postseason forecast
Rice is one of the few constants in college baseball. No matter the year, the Owls are always in the national title hunt. That won't change this season. The Owls have some significant holes to fill, but return another phenomenal pitching staff with Ryan Berry, Matt Langwell and Cole St. Clair leading the charge. While the pitching staff is in great shape, the offense has something to prove with Aaron Luna, Jess Buenger, Diego Seastrunk and Jordan Dodson as the headliners. As always, the Owls have a pitching staff conducive to going the distance. If the offense rises to the occasion, Rice will be one of few favorites to win the national title. Will that actually happen? Only time will tell.

Shoes to Fill

Rice has some important holes to fill and Joe Savery, Brian Friday, Tyler Henley, Danny Lehmann, Ryne Tacker and Bobby Bramhall are the key departures.

Two-way star Joe Savery highlights the list. As a hitter last season, he batted .356 with six homers and 60 RBIs. He also slugged .505 and had a .435 on-base percentage. Additionally, he had 19 doubles, two triples and led the team with 139 total bases.

Savery's departure will also be felt on the mound, where he went 11-1 with a 2.99 ERA in 93 1/3 innings of work last season. He struck out 61 and walked 41, while opponents hit him at a .242 clip.

The Owls will also miss Friday, Henley Lehmann and Tacker.

Friday hit .336 with three homers and 30 RBIs last season, while Henley finished the year hitting .313 with six homers and 32 RBIs.

Lehmann is a significant loss both behind and at the plate. Besides being an outstanding defensive catcher, Lehmann hit .313 with four homers and 40 RBIs.

Tacker made 22 appearances last season and had a 3.01 ERA in 71 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 67 and walked 21, while opponents hit .231 off him.

Bramhall, a 2007 Rivals.com All-American, made 28 appearances last season and had a 2.35 ERA in 61 1/3 innings of work. He also struck out 80 and walked 33, while opponents hit him at a .168 clip.

Must Step Up

With the Owls hoping to increase their offensive production, sophomore Diego Seastrunk, seniors J.P. Padron and Jordan Dodson, and redshirt junior Adam Zornes must rise to the occasion.

Seastrunk didn't have an overly impressive freshman campaign, but showed flashes of greatness at the College World Series. It will be interesting to see how he manages his role as a hitter and possible pitcher.

Padron and Dodson must also step up. Padron hit .310 in just 71 at bats last season, while Dodson hit .302 with eight homers and 55 RBIs. Though Dodson had impressive power numbers last season, the Owls would like to see an increased batting average.

Catcher Adam Zornes is another player to watch. After hitting .203 in just 59 at bats last season, Zornes has the tough chore of replacing Danny Lehmann.

Impact Newcomer

The Owls have some important holes to fill at the plate, and the additions of freshmen Rick Hague and Chad Mozingo couldn't have come at a better time.

Hague replaces Brian Friday at shortstop and is coming off an impressive fall. Coach Graham describes Hague as a player that runs well, has great range and skills, and exhibits outstanding work ethic. Most importantly, he plays his position like a veteran.

Mozingo earned similar praise from Coach Graham. The talented freshman has nailed down the starting job in centerfield. He might also be the Owls' leadoff hitter. According to Graham, Mozingo is very intense and has a great arm to go with tremendous work ethic.

While Hague and Mozingo headline the newcomers in the field, Lucas Luetge, Jordan Rogers and Matt Evers are three pitchers to watch.

Luetge officially joined the team at Winter Break and might end up a weekend starter. Graham describes Luetge as a pitcher with a deceptive release, much movement on his pitches and a great attitude.

Rogers and Evers are in the mix as midweek starters and key relievers.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 25. Coming tomorrow: No. 3.



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