article Rice, UH to face super challenges Stalwarts LSU, Texas stand in the way By BRIAN McTAGGART Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle Rice and Houston are just two wins away from reaching the College World Series, but the Owls and Cougars must get past a pair of perennial powers this weekend before they can turn their attention to Omaha, Neb. Rice (50-12), in the super regionals for the third time in the last four years, will meet five-time national champion LSU (44-20) in a best-of-three series beginning Friday at Reckling Park, while Houston (47-15) will meet four-time champion Texas (51-14) beginning Friday at Disch-Falk Field in Austin. Both super regionals are already complete sellouts. "I think we're all looking forward to it," Houston catcher Chris Snyder said. "We're ready to get on the road, and whatever happens over there happens. We're playing good baseball right now, and so are they. So it's going to be a great super regional." The winners of the two series will be paired against each other in the first round of the College World Series, which means the Owls and Cougars will meet in Omaha if they prevail this weekend. "That remains to be seen," Houston coach Rayner Noble said. "What we've got to do is look at this weekend first. Ultimately, what we'd like to do is get to the College World Series, but we've got a very tall hurdle to get over. If that comes to pass and both (Rice and Houston) make it to Omaha, it would be a good story." Rice is trying for its third trip to the College World Series in the last six seasons. The Owls advanced to the super regionals last year, getting swept at Nebraska. LSU and Rice haven't played since the first game of the 1997 College World Series, which the Tigers won 5-4. Rice coach Wayne Graham saw the Tigers in person when they lost two of three at Houston in February, but he knows LSU has improved in the last three months. "I'm sure they're better, but I feel like anybody you get now is going to be tough, and it's just hard to know who's the toughest," Graham said. The Tigers got off to a mediocre 16-12 start before rallying to finish 28-8 over their final 36 games. LSU finished a half-game behind Alabama in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference. As the top seed and host at last weekend's regional in Baton Rouge, La., the Tigers squeaked by Southern 5-4 in the first round before losing to Louisiana-Lafayette. LSU came back to beat Tulane on Saturday and Louisiana-Lafayette twice on Sunday to advance. "It's going to be a great atmosphere, and we're looking forward to it," Graham said. Houston has won 14 of its last 15 games after beating New Mexico State and taking two from host Arizona State in this past weekend's regional in Mesa, Ariz. The Cougars' pitching has been superb the past two weekends, especially first-team All-America sophomore Brad Sullivan (12-1). He has two complete games in his last three starts. "They're playing great," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "It should be a very exciting and competitive series. They've been very consistent in their performances in regional play, so it will be a good series." The Longhorns also have been getting solid pitching, led by first-team All-American Justin Simmons (14-1, 2.42 ERA). Their 2-0 shutout over Baylor on Sunday to clinch the regional championship was their ninth of the season, lowering their team ERA to 2.78. "I think anything can happen this weekend," Garrido said. "Both teams are playing with confidence, and both teams have the ingredients to be successful. It will just come down to how they play in this series." Garrido said Monday he hadn't decided on a pitching rotation for the weekend, but the Longhorns often went with Simmons on Saturdays during conference play. Noble said Sullivan will pitch the opener Friday, with Danny Zell getting the call Saturday. "Augie Garrido is one of the premier coaches in the country, and Frank Anderson may be one of the better pitching coaches around, so you know they're going to be prepared," Noble said. "What it's going to amount to is what happens between the lines." In addition to having sellout crowds of around 8,000 in their corner this weekend, the Longhorns always will have an advantage by playing on the quick turf at Disch-Falk. The Longhorns are 27-5 at home this season. "I think people will see us as a little bit of an underdog, but people like the underdog, and it would be kind of nice to get some folks in our corner down there," Noble said. "We've overcome that stigma all year long and have handled it well." Garrido said Texas is in no position to take UH lightly. The Cougars went 6-1 against the Big 12 this season, with their only loss a 7-6 setback to the Horns on Feb. 9 at the Astros College Classic. "I would hope that our players are motivated by delivering a best performance and by realizing the opportunities that go along with playing in this series, not because it's Houston," Garrido said. "We understand that they're good." Confidence won't be a problem for the Cougars. "From the vibes I get from our guys, I think they're ready to roll," Noble said. "We need a couple of days of preparation and rest and recuperation, but I think by the time Thursday rolls around and we get on the bus to go up there, I think we'll be fine."