By David Ruth and John Sullivan
With no shortage of drama, the Rice baseball team rallied Tuesday evening for a 4-3 win in the bottom of the 11th inning against Texas State to give Owls head coach Wayne Graham his 1,000th Rice win.
“One of my friends from high school said, ‘You always do it the hard way.’ That was the hard way,” Graham said.
Now in his 23rd season at the helm of the program, Graham has amassed an impressive 1,000 wins while maintaining a steady .714 Division I winning percentage. His record is fourth-best in the nation among active coaches (minimum five years coaching). Under his leadership, Rice baseball has won 18-consecutive conference championships (including regular season or conference tournament titles) and the Owls have been to the NCAA Regionals in each of the last 19 seasons. Graham’s 2003 Owls team won the NCAA National Championship.
“When you reflect about 1,000 wins, you reflect about the people who helped you get it,” Graham said. “Whether it be my wife — who has been there for everything — or the great players we’ve had over time. Rice gave me an opportunity when nobody else would. It’s a privilege to coach here.”
Getting the Owls to rally from deficits two different times on Tuesday night may have been some of his best coaching yet. Texas State jumped on the scoreboard for a pair of unearned runs in the top of the first inning and held the lead until Rice tied the game in the eighth inning on RBI singles by Skyler Ewing and John Clay Reeves.
Texas State threatened to go back in front in the top of the 10th inning after a leadoff double, but Graham immediately went to the bullpen for junior Zech Lemond. Lemond halted the threat with two strikeouts and a ground out. The Bobcats broke through with a run in the top of the 11th inning to take a 3-2 lead.
Rice answered with two runs with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning. Leon Byrd drew a one-out walk and dashed to third on a single to right field by freshman Charlie Warren. Warren was retired while attempting to hustle an extra 90 feet to second base. Byrd scored on a double to right center by Keenan Cook, which made it 3-3. Cook sprinted home from second on a lining single to right by John Williamson for the 4-3 final.
“It felt pretty good (to get the hit),” Williamson said. “I started the night 0-3, and when I came in (the dugout) after my third at-bat, coach Graham said to keep grinding and stay after it. I took that into my last at-bat, and that’s how I got it.”
“To get the 1,000th win in this fashion was fitting,” Cook said. “It’s about grinding it out. The chips are down, and we kept battling. That’s everything he preaches day-in and day-out. He refuses to lose, and it spreads throughout the whole locker room.”
Rice improved to 3-1 on the season. Texas State is now 2-2 overall. There is not much time to celebrate the head coach’s milestone victory. The Owls host crosstown rival Houston on Wednesday at Reckling Park. Start time against the Cougars is 4:30 pm. The Rice Athletics Department will have a special presentation commemorating coach’s 1,000th victory in a pregame ceremony.
“It’s good to get it out of the way now, because I don’t want that kind of pressure put on the kids,” Graham said. “I’m glad we could do it tonight — relax a little bit. Although we’ve got a pretty tight game tomorrow.”