Wild Rice The Owls beat Stanford to win their first national title in any sport

June 29, 2003

Two and barbecue, or so went the dis against Rice. On each of its
three previous trips to the College World Series, in 1997, '99
and 2002, the small Houston school with the big academic
reputation had quickly dropped two games and, as its detractors
suggested, been left to grab a pulled-pork sandwich on its way
out of Omaha. But with an offensive explosion in a 14-2 victory
over gutty Stanford on Monday night, the Owls claimed their first
national championship in any sport. "We've always had to battle
the perception that we had not gotten far here," says coach Wayne
Graham. "That perception has been destroyed."

Pitching was the centerpiece of Rice's team--the Owls' 2.74
regular-season ERA was the nation's second best--and sophomore
righthander Jeff Niemann, who tied an NCAA record for the most
wins (17) without a loss, was the centerpiece of the staff.
Niemann, lightly recruited out of Lamar High, some 3 1/2 miles
from the Rice campus, joined the Owls with a mid-90s fastball
courtesy of his 6'9", 270-pound frame. He had no out pitch,
however, besides a rainbow curve that Rice coaches informed him
was too slow to be successful. Graham taught Niemann a slider,
which he throws over the top like his fastball and which breaks
down and away from righthanders.

In his first start of the season, against Texas A&M at Minute
Maid Park, Niemann was touched for four runs in the first inning
and was paid an angry visit by Graham. "I told him to quit
worrying about spots so much and just gun it," Graham says. "He
reminds me of Roger Clemens, and I told him he needed to rear
back and grunt once in a while, like Roger does." Niemann quickly
turned aggressive, using his fastball-slider combination to shut
the Aggies down in a 10-5 win. Niemann took the same approach for
the rest of the season, and in Game 1 against the Cardinal last
Saturday, after a shaky first inning, he mowed hitters down, at
one point retiring 16 of 17 as the Owls rallied to win in the
10th, 4-3.

In stark contrast to the gorilla ball of the late '90s--the peak
of the offensive explosion came in '98, when USC beat Arizona
State 21-14 in the championship game--pitching dominated this
CWS. Teams batted .265, and there was an average of 11.6 runs per
game, the lowest figures since '94. What Niemann accomplished for
Rice, junior righthander John Hudgins duplicated for Stanford. A
finesse pitcher with an uncanny resemblance--in both appearance
and pitching style--to his model, Greg Maddux, Hudgins deployed a
mid-80s fastball with pinpoint control and mixed it with a
nibbling curve and a circle changeup to go 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA,
despite throwing 350 pitches over nine days. "Not being a real
power pitcher, I don't think the short rest affected me as much,"
Hudgins, who was named the series' Most Outstanding Player, said
after limiting the Owls to three runs in seven innings in the
Cardinal's 8-3 victory on Sunday. "It might have even helped my
changeup."

The superiority of Rice's pitching staff was evident in the
clincher. Righthander and usual No. 3 starter Philip Humber went
the distance, allowing just five hits and two runs, and the Owls
rode a single and five walks to a 3-0 lead they never
relinquished. On a stage where power hitting normally rules,
pitching was king instead.

COLOR PHOTO: NATI HARNIK/AP Rice won the opener after Austin Davis (9) reached on a 10th-inning error, and led by ace Niemann (inset), the Owls took the series. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above]

The Best at the CWS

Name Pos. School Year

John Hudgins RHP Stanford Jr.
Became eighth pitcher to win three CWS games; struck out 15 in 24
innings

Jeff Niemann RHP Rice So.
Overpowering righthander fanned 14 in two games; ended season 17-0

Jonny Ash 3B Stanford Jr.
Former benchwarmer had no career HRs entering CWS, but hit two in
four games

Chris Kolkhorst LF Rice Jr.
Saved Game 1 with two terrific catches; scored three runs in the
clincher

Shane Costa RF Cal State-Fullerton Jr.
Dangerous hitter to all fields; batted .412 in CWS with a homer
and five RBIs

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)