Texas A&M returns to NCAA Super Regional play this Friday for the first time in three seasons, but it's unlikely that the focus will be on pure baseball until the first pitch is thrown.
The national and regional media, by and large, are taking their first real glance at the college baseball season. Those who never cared about baseball before will suddenly look to appease subscribers and advertisers with stories and angles that seem original, but most will seem recycled—especially if you're one of the lucky fans who braved the wireless internet at Olsen Field to get tickets immediately following the game.
Still, this series is compelling and the surrounding subplots make it one of the deepest stories in recent memory.
A&M's 2-0 lead in the season series will be a hot topic for discussion, especially given that both contests came in Houston. The Aggies won 4-2 on opening weekend at Minute Maid Park, with David Newmann and Kyle Nicholson combining to lead on the hill. On March 20th, the two locked up in a four-and-a-half hour classic, with the Aggies winning 10-9 in eleven innings.
For a slightly older storyline, A&M returns to Reckling Park in postseason play for the first time since their 2004 upset of the Owls. A&M rode the perfect storm; an unlikely Texas Southern win over Rice, a rain soaked first game that allowed them to save Jason Meyer, and an easy winner's bracket game with TSU. Rice took game six in a classic pitcher's duel between Jeff Niemann and Zach Jackson, and then the Aggies took the defending national champions down with a game seven grand slam by Justin Ruggiano off of a tattered and weary Philip Humber – who was the No. 3 overall pick in the MLB draft just days later.
That would be Mark Johnson's last postseason victory as the A&M skipper, and the coaching search to replace him would conclude just one year later. With rumors of Ray Tanner and Danny Hall running rampant, Rice skipper Wayne Graham allegedly threw his name into the hat at the 11th hour, only to publicly withdraw the next day and sign a lucrative extension. Rob Childress was announced the Aggie skipper on the very next day.
Childress and Graham also find themselves intertwined and the past and future of great college head coaches in the state of Texas. Graham's not getting any younger, and has built one of the best all-around resumes in college baseball history. Childress has reached outstanding heights in just his second season at A&M, and at age 38 seems primed for not only a long run in Aggieland but also among the nation's elite. Childress has built a team, Graham has built a program, and the proverbial "passing of the torch" will make its' rounds.
After the dismal 2006 season, Childress made several roster cuts in an effort to improve the overall talent level, specifically on offense. The production at the plate and the results thus far prove his decision was correct, but this weekend will serve as another reunion between him and a jilted former player. Jess Buenger hit .227 with one homer and five RBI in 29 games as an Aggie, but has flourished in the Rice lineup. The sophomore is hitting .315 with seven homers and 43 RBI in 59 games. The move has obviously paid dividends for both A&M and Buenger.
Don't forget the flip side of that coin—A&M's Matt Ueckert. He hasn't thrown in a couple of weeks and never returned to his pre-Tommy John surgery form, but threw well against the Owls earlier this season and obviously knows Reckling Park better than anyone.
For those with a three sided coin, try Rice's Ryne Tacker. Tacker was a pitcher under Mark Johnson but transferred to San Jacinto Junior College after never seeing substantial innings. He was recruited and signed by Graham, and was named a third team All-American by Collegiate baseball earlier this season. He holds a 9-1 record with a 3.01 ERA.
The subplots are fun to look at, and everyone will have a take in the coming days, but the real fun will come at 6 PM on Friday night. A Super-Regional with Southwest Conference flair with a trip to Omaha on the line.
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