Saturday, May 19, 2007

Conference USA Tournament Preview

After winning the regular season Conference USA championship for the second straight season, top-ranked Rice will be the No.1 seed at the 2007 Conference USA Championship, which begins Wednesday at Clark-LeClair Stadium in Greenville, N.C. The Owls finished with a 22-2 record in C-USA play, matching the best winning percentage (.917) in league history, which Rice established last season. At 45-11 overall, Rice owns one of the best records in Division I baseball and will enter the tournament on an 18-game winning streak. The Owls have won 12 consecutive regular season conference championships, dating back to the final year of the Southwest Conference.

The Owls will face UCF (26-30) in the second game of the tournament on Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. EDT. The Knights (7-17 in C-USA) punched their ticket to the tournament with a dramatic comeback victory on Friday night over Marshall. Rice is once again armed with one of the top pitching staffs in the country. Junior LHP Joe Savery, Freshman RHP Ryan Berry and Senior RHP Ryne Tacker lead a strong starting rotation, while closer Cole St.Clair is rounding back into form after missing the first two months of the season with an injury. Junior IF Kiko Vazquez is UCF's top hitter, pacing the club in average (.311), doubles (16) and RBI (43), while freshman 3B Chris Duffy enters the tournament having hit a home run in four of his last six games. Rice swept the three-game series between the teams in Orlando in April.

The championship will get underway at 9:00 a.m. EDT on Wednesday when No. 5 seed Memphis (33-23, 12-12) takes on No. 4 seed Houston (28-26, 12-12). The Tigers and Cougars met two weekends ago in Memphis, with visiting Houston taking two-of-three in a wild offensive series. The Tigers feature eight senior starters, led by 1B Adam Amar, the school's all-time leader in hits and RBI, and 2B Bill Moss (.333, 12 HR, 49 RBI). The Cougars feature sophomore OF Jimmy Cesario (.358, 13 2B), sophomore C Luis Flores (team-leading 9 HR) and freshman P Wes Musick (6-4, 3.18 ERA, 68 K's). Memphis and Houston will be meeting in the Conference USA Championship for the first time since 1998.

Red-hot Southern Miss, winners of 10 in a row, earned the No. 3 seed and opens its tourney play against No. 6 seed UAB at 4 p.m. EDT on Wednesday. The Golden Eagles (37-19, 14-10) have a trio of starting pitchers (Ryan Belanger, Barry Bowden and David Clark) that have each won eight games while junior 1B Trey Sutton (.370, 18 2B, 6 HR, 36 RBI) leads the offense.

UAB, which posted its best conference record since 1998 under first-year head coach Brian Shoop, are one of the top-hitting teams in C-USA. The Blazers have seven starters batting better than .300, paced by OF J.R. Bond at .354. Southern Miss won two-of-three games when the teams met in Hattiesburg in late April.

Tulane (32-24, 9-15) earned the No. 7 seed and will face No. 2 seed and tournament host East Carolina (36-20, 14-9) in the final game of the first day at 7:30 p.m. EDT on Wednesday. Tulane's pitching staff leads Conference USA in strikeouts, led by junior RHP Sean Morgan (116) and sophomore RHP Shooter Hunt (95). ECU has one of the top closers in C-USA in Shane Mathews (league-leading 12 saves) and sophomore 1B Stephen Batts enters the tournament with a 21-game hitting streak, the longest in the league this season. This will be the third straight year that these teams will meet in the Conference USA Championship. Tulane won the regular season series, 2 games to 1, when the squads faced off in New Orleans during the second weekend of league play.

The championship game of the tournament on Sunday, May 27 will be televised on a same-day tape delay basis by CSTV: College Sports Television. The title game will air on CSTV at 9:30 p.m. EDT. The tournament champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship.

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