The cast of characters is different, but there is not expected to be a change of leadership when it comes to Conference USA baseball.
Rice is an overwhelming choice to win the conference. In a preseason poll released Wednesday, Rice was chosen first on 12 of 13 ballots. Tulane, which was rated fifth, picked up the other first-place vote.
Being tabbed the favorite is nothing new for the Owls. Since the university joined C-USA prior to the 2006 baseball season, Rice has been picked first every year there has been a preseason poll.
The Owls have delivered on those expectations. Rice has won or shared seven regular season Conference USA titles in eight years. The school has won a conference regular season or tournament championship 18 consecutive years.
The quest for No. 19 will come against several new opponents. Gone are rival Central Florida, Memphis and city neighbor, Houston. Seven new teams have moved in led by the South Florida contingent of Florida Atlantic and FIU.
Florida Atlantic was picked to finish second, followed by C-USA holdovers East Carolina and Southern Mississippi. FAU ace Austin Gomber figures to be among the top starters in the league. They visit Rice for a weekend series March 21-23, with the Saturday game being broadcast by Fox Sports.
“We are looking forward to our first go around in Conference USA,” FAU coach John McCormack said in a news release. “It is nice that the other coaches see our program as a good addition to the league.”
FIU is the next highest rated newcomer at No. 6, followed by UTSA (No. 7), Charlotte (No. 8), Middle Tennessee (No. 9) and Old Dominion (No. 10). UAB, Marshall and Louisiana Tech round out the list.
Besides FAU, Rice will host Old Dominion, East Carolina, UAB and Louisiana Tech. They have road series at FIU, Middle Tennessee State, Tulane, Southern Miss and UTSA. The Owls won’t face Charlotte or Marshall. Rice opens the season Feb. 14 at Stanford.
The coaches also chose a preseason all-conference team. Rice players on the team were outfielder Michael Aquino, infielder Shane Hoelscher and pitchers Jordan Stephens and Zach Lemond. The C-USA Pitcher of the Year honor also went to Lemond. The junior closer finished with 14 saves and a 2.02 ERA last season.
Drew Reynolds of East Carolina and Aramis Garcia of FIU shared preseason Player of the Year honors.
Preseason C-USA Coaches Poll
- Rice (12)
- Florida Atlantic
- East Carolina
- Southern Miss
- Tulane (1)
- Middle Tennessee
- Old Dominion
- Louisiana Tech
C-USA Preseason All-Conference Team
- P Austin Gomber Jr., Florida Atlantic
- P Jeff Hoffman Jr., East Carolina
- P Jordan Stephens Jr., Rice
- RP Zech Lemond Jr., Rice
- C Aramis Garcia Jr., FIU
- IF Brad Elwood Jr., Charlotte
- IF Shane Hoelscher Sr., Rice
- IF R.J. Perucki Sr., UTSA
- IF Edwin Rios So., FIU
- OF Michael Aquino Sr., Rice
- OF Josh Eldridge Jr., Old Dominion
- OF Ryan Stephens Sr., Middle Tennessee
- OF Mason Robbins Jr., Southern Miss
- DH/UT Drew Reynolds Sr., East Carolina