Immortality: An Oral History of the 2003 Rice Baseball Team
It has been 15 years since Rice baseball claimed the school’s first and only national championship. The image of the team’s dogpile on the Rosenblatt Stadium mound is still etched in the memories of Rice fans a decade and a half later. But the season itself is memorable for far more than its finish.
The storybook ending of the 2003 season may not have been possible without the heartbreak of 2002. That year, the Owls qualified for the College World Series for the third time in school history, only to lose their first two games and head home defeated.
Note: All people mentioned are identified by the position they played or the job they held in 2003.
Head Coach Wayne Graham: I thought we had a good team in 2002, but we weren’t as sound defensively and our pitching wasn’t as mature. Two things, pitching and defense, were better in ‘03. That was the key.
Senior catcher Justin Ruchti: The ‘02 team was great, but we had gotten a chance to go up and play in Omaha, and for all of us, that was our first experience in Omaha.
Junior outfielder Chris Kolkhorst: A little overwhelming that first time in ‘02, going to that environment. A little challenging. I think your first time you’re a little starstruck. You’re playing on ESPN, you have lots of fans in the stands. It’s something you’ve dreamed of your whole life. It’s a little overwhelming.
Junior outfielder Austin Davis: I knew we had missed an opportunity with a great team in ‘02. With a lot of returners and some great young players coming in in ‘03 I thought we had a good shot.
Ruchti: I remember having a team meeting before the  season started and I told the guys, “If this year doesn’t result in us shaking the president’s hand, then I think we underachieved with the talent that we have.”
In 2003, the Owls fielded four pitchers, three starters and a closer, who would become first round MLB draft picks. But heading into the season, the pitching rotation was a question mark.
Graham: We lost [former pitcher Justin] Crowder and we lost [senior pitcher Steven] Herce. Herce was back but he had hurt his arm. That was a blow. We were really concerned because Herce, who had arguably been our best pitcher the year before, got hurt.
To replace their top pitchers, the Owls plugged in four sophomores to their starting rotation: Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend, Philip Humber and Josh Baker. Niemann, Townsend and Humber went on to become first round draft picks. In addition, Rice had junior David Aardsma, another future first round pick, as its closer.
Graham: We didn’t [know Niemann, Townsend and Humber were special coming in], and we still are looking for those diamonds in the rough. Humber was the only one that was really recruited by Division I schools. Niemann had a “books” offer to Baylor [University] and that was his only offer. Townsend didn’t have any.
Ruchti: These guys matured a lot between freshman and sophomore year. We relied really heavily on them. Each one of them was a completely different personality and a completely different type of pitcher, but all three of them were very, very talented.
Kolkhorst: You have 27 outs in the game, and I think we only had to field it and throw it for like half of them because they would strike them out the other half. It was pretty easy to play defense behind those guys.
Ruchti: [Niemann] rarely shook anything off. Humber was very cerebral. When I did catch him, we were on the same page a lot. He liked to work backwards inside and out. I would say he had the most mature approach to pitching at the time. [Townsend], I think [he] would deliberately shake whatever I put down. We spent a lot of time talking on the mound.
But as fierce competitors as [they were], all three of those guys would go out there and pitch on short rest and pitch with sore arms. They were tough to pull off the mound. There was a reason they chewed up so many innings. We had complete games, it was old school. They would pitch until the ball got taken out of their hands.
Graham: Three first round pitchers and a first round closer. That’s pretty hard to beat.
The Owls began the season 3-1, then rattled off 30 consecutive wins. They went without a loss from Feb. 17 to Apr. 9, a span of almost two months.
Sophomore shortstop Paul Janish: Winning 30 games in a row really shouldn’t happen. We had a really good team, no question about that, but we had some things go our way during that streak.
Davis: It’s a lot like hitting 30 jump shots in a row. We were relaxed. We knew we were going to win. Everyone was really laid back; it was just a lot of fun.
Kolkhorst: We looked up and we had won 30 in a row. Towards the end, of course, we knew that we had a streak going because anytime we did an interview they’d ask about it. But nobody was very surprised. We were just playing ball and winning.
Ruchti: We really didn’t think about the streak until it broke when we got absolutely smoked at Lamar. On the bus ride home, coaches were pissed off. We all had a big team meeting and we decided that’s done, the pressure of winning all these consecutive games is off, let’s turn the corner. That loss at Lamar, I think if you ask a lot of people, that was a turning point in our season.
Davis: We went into a little bit of a slump [after the streak].
Ruchti: We weren’t used to [losing]. So we had to work on getting back to what we were doing. It wasn’t as easy all of the sudden. It taught us to deal with some adversity because up to that point we were cruising.
After losing six of 10 games following the 30-game winning streak, the Owls finished the regular season by winning 11 of their final 14. They won the Western Athletic Conference championship and entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 5 overall seed. Rice hosted the Houston Regional against McNeese State University, the University of Mississippi and Wichita State University. Rice swept the regional in three games to advance to the best two out of three Super Regional round against the University of Houston.
Ruchti: We rolled through that [regional]. The McNeese game, though, was extra innings and we had a putout at the plate. My roommate, [senior outfielder] Dane Bubela, made a beautiful throw home and we tagged the guy at the plate. Then we beat Wichita State twice. It wasn’t until we got to the Super Regional that we were concerned.
Graham: Houston had two first round draft picks on their pitching staff.
Ruchti: They had a fantastic pitching staff that year and a closer named Ryan Wagner. To prep for this guy, we would go out and hit on a machine and Coach Graham would put it on sliders. They were so unhittable in the cage we ended up just bagging it and doing normal [batting practice] because it wasn’t helping anyone. I struck out off him bunting.
Davis: We ran up against a pitcher I grew up with, Danny Zell, in the first game and he just pitched great. They had two or three good hits against us and that was the difference in the game.
Ruchti: We went into that first game, they didn’t pitch their ace and we lost. We had to go back out and beat their ace in Game 2 and then come back and beat the kid they pitched Game 3. That was probably the only time during the season that we honestly took a look and said, “This may not happen. This may be tougher than we thought.”
Graham: I was more than worried.
Janish: Staring down the barrel of that gun, with those guys that they had, it was an uphill battle. Fortunately, we had a tough team. We had a resilient team and it showed that series in particular.
Davis: There’s no saying how resilient [we were]. It might’ve been the difference between ‘02 and ‘03. ‘02 was very resilient but I think this ‘03 team had a mindset, not just a heart but a mindset, that when the chips weren’t falling in your favor, you just could turn the stack and push the deck in your favor whenever tough times hit.
Rice took Game 2 10-2 over UH’s ace, Brad Sullivan. Then, Townsend pitched the Owls to a 5-2 win and a trip to the College World Series in the deciding Game 3.
Graham: Houston that year, had they beat us, might’ve won the national championship. They were that good. We had to play good to beat them.
Ruchti: That might be as good as UH had been up until  or the year prior. It just so happened, their best years coincided with our best years and they never got to play in Omaha, but they were definitely worthy of playing in Omaha.
Davis: We were watching SportsCenter that evening and they were showing the eight celebrations of the teams that made it [to the College World Series]. We were the only team that didn’t dogpile. We just gave each other a few high fives. We were very excited, but it was about unfinished business from the year before. It was a much different experience heading to Omaha in ‘02 versus ‘03.
Kolkhorst: We were happy. But it just felt like we were inching closer to what our goal was: to win the whole thing. It was just another step to getting where we wanted to go.
Janish: Going to Omaha, it was a business trip. We definitely were anticipating playing well. We thought at that time we could beat anybody.
Rice had won just one game in school history at the College World Series before 2003. In the opening game, the Owls faced off against Southwest Missouri State University, which was making its first ever appearance in Omaha.
Janish: The nature of that round robin, if you get in that loser’s bracket, it’s a tough road.
Graham: If we hadn’t been really on our game, Southwest Missouri State had a great team that year. Niemann was lights out for eight innings and then we had Aardsma and beat them.
Ruchti: That was huge.
Davis: One of our coaches, [pitching coach] Mike Taylor, had a monkey he got from the World Series and it had one of the College World Series jerseys. Literally, it was the monkey off our backs. I think we only had one other win in Rice history in a World Series. It was big for us.
Ruchti: We played [the University of] Texas, [Austin] next and we knew that team frontwards and back.
Graham: Our guys wanted [Texas] really bad. We crushed them the first game. It was close until the fifth or sixth inning, but then we just blew them out.
Ruchti: The pitcher that they had pitching against us, [Justin] Simmons, was an All-American the year before. [He was a] soft-throwing lefty, and he hadn’t had that good of a senior season because everybody had figured him out. We routed them pretty good that game. It gave us some confidence moving into Game 2 for sure.
Kolkhorst: They were the defending champs. They had been our rivals. They kind of had our number. In ‘02 they beat us there at Omaha. To be 2-0 sitting in the winner’s bracket, that was huge.
After Texas defeated the University of Miami in an elimination game, the Owls once again faced off against the Longhorns. Rice needed just one win in two tries against UT to advance to the best-of-three championship series.
Ruchti: To this day, still the most exciting baseball game that I personally have played.
Graham: [That] game was a key game of the whole tournament because it was close all the way.
Davis: J.P. Howell, a major league pitcher [for Texas], was pitching and throwing great. We had to scrap out three, maybe four runs off him.
Ruchti: Philip Humber went out and hit the first three batters he faced and then got out of it with no runs. Holy smokes, his stuff that day was just insane. Control problems, but effectively wild and probably the best pure stuff he ever had.
The Longhorns tied the game at four in the fifth inning. The game remained knotted until the bottom of the ninth, when Justin Ruchti stepped to the plate with a runner on second and one out for the Owls. A run would send Rice to the College World Series championship. But Texas closer Huston Street, the previous year’s College World Series Most Outstanding Player, was in his way.
Davis: The memory of the College World Series might be when Justin Ruchti got the hit off [Texas closer] Huston Street to drive in the winning run.
Ruchti: The season before, in ‘02, Huston Street was closing a game and [Graham] pinch hit a lefty for me, which I completely understood. Street’s best pitch was a slider and it was tough for righties. I got into a situation where I was down early 2-2 and he threw five straight sliders. The adage goes, if you’re going to miss, miss out of the zone. Don’t miss close to the zone and then back one up into the strike zone, and he did exactly that. Just took a two strike approach and tried to punch it up the middle, and we were able to get the run in.
Ruchti’s hit sent the Owls to the College World Series finals against Stanford University. Rice had never made it that far in the tournament before. It was the first year the tournament had a best two out of three series for the championship instead of a single game.
Kolkhorst: Nobody was happy being the farthest advancing Rice team ever. We wanted to go win. We were excited to be two games away from being a national champion.
Ruchti: We had rolled through our side of the bracket undefeated, so we had an extra day or two of rest. We did a lot of press. I got to go do some test scenes for commercials, stand here and look tough, that kind of stuff. That was fun. That kind of made it feel like this was something a little bit more. But I think we felt pretty relaxed going in.
Graham: Stanford had a great hitting team. Stanford had one of the stronger hitting teams we’d ever played.
Ruchti: We weren’t intimidated by their pitching staff. They were an offensive minded team. They had a really good ace, and then after that, they were pretty thin. We figured if we could get past Game 1 with those guys, we’d have a pretty good shot.
Early in Game 1, however, the Owls were dealt a major blow.
Kolkhorst: I remember chasing a foul ball early in the game. It landed like 10 rows deep [in the stands] but for some reason I thought I was going to catch it. I tripped over the bullpen mound and tore my PCL in my left knee.
Graham: The trainer said he couldn’t play anymore, his kneecap was just floating around.
Kolkhorst: I was more concerned with looking like an idiot on ESPN, so I popped up and tried to run back to my position. When I got there I realized there was something wrong with my knee.
Graham: But he played the rest of the series. He’s made of a little different stuff. Believe me, he’s made of a little different stuff.
Kolkhorst: I got by on adrenaline. As long as I could run or jog I wasn’t coming out.
Kolkhorst’s torn PCL became crucial in the eighth inning. With two outs and a runner on for Stanford in a tie game, the Cardinal’s Danny Putnam stepped to the plate and hit a ball deep to left field, where Kolkhorst was playing.
Kolkhorst: Left handed hitter and high and outside pitch. He drove it to left. I knew off the bat it was hit well.
Davis: [He covered] a lot of distance against a great hitter, a left handed hitter so the ball was tailing away from him.
Kolkhorst: I had to go catch it. It was a crucial time, they had runners on and so when it was in the air I was just running, knew I had to get it.
Graham: Kolkhorst made an incredible play.
Kolkhorst: Getting close to the wall I jumped, hit the wall and landed and saw the ball was in my glove and held it up.
Davis: Phenomenal catch.
Graham: One of the greatest plays ever made. They still play it sometimes on the College World Series [broadcasts].
Davis: It was most definitely a game-saving catch.
Graham: I’ve asked him many times, how’d he do that on a torn PCL, and he said it only hurt when he stopped.
Rice won Game 1 on a walkoff error in the 10th inning. The Owls were one game away from the national title.
Graham: We knew we were gonna have a heck of a chance to win the whole thing once we won the first one.
Davis: We were ready to put it away. We were excited, but we weren’t satisfied. The next day I just remember sitting around for probably three or four hours because of a rain delay and it was just a huge letdown. Took the wind out of our sails.
Kolkhorst: Game 2 they started their ace pitcher and he shut us down.
Davis: We played a good game but they played a nice game too. It wasn’t our day that day.
After Stanford’s 8-3 win in Game 2, the two teams advanced to a winner-take-all Game 3.
Janish: That was the first year college baseball ever had a three game series for the championship, so we were thinking, for the last 100 years, we would’ve been the national champion already.
Graham: I wouldn’t even let our guys the last game watch [Stanford] hitting batting practice. They were hitting them all over everything out in Rosenblatt. They were hitting them completely out of the stadium.
Janish: I wasn’t by nature a very nervous person, but there was some angst going into that game. Up to that point, that was obviously the biggest game of anybody on that team’s career.
Graham: I told [the team], ‘You get to play the last game of the year, have fun.’ I’m just telling you, that’s pretty much what I said.
Janish: I don’t remember us as a team feeling much pressure. I just remember feeling excited to be there and feeling like we were supposed to be there and we were supposed to win the game.
The Owls raced out to an early 3-0 lead after Stanford’s pitcher walked five men in the first inning.
Davis: I credit our lineup for being disciplined and not jumping at pitches and having the situation be too big for us. I think we were all confident and prepared.
Kolkhorst: We were patient, took advantage of his wildness. It was nice to get out to an early lead.
Ruchti: They spotted runs early, and we’ve got Philip Humber pitching. We were just mowing through them. We had very little trouble going through the lineup.
Rice’s seven-run sixth inning put the Owls ahead 11-0.
Davis: We were not ready to call it at any point in the game, especially with a team like Stanford who could put up a lot of runs at any point.
Graham: You’re more comfortable but you’re not going to let up at all. You’re not going to start putting substitutes in or anything like that. This is for the national championship.
Kolkhorst: I would say probably in the sixth or seventh inning I started counting down how many outs we needed and just focusing on that. The ninth inning I was able to enjoy it and realize, wow, we are really close to being national champions.
The game ended with a score of Rice 14, Stanford 2. It remains the most lopsided championship game in College World Series history.
Kolkhorst: Ground ball to [junior third baseman Craig] Stansberry, he gloves it, throws a strike across to [junior first baseman Vincent] Sinisi, and then the celebration was on.
Ruchti: It’s the most fun you can have playing baseball.
Davis: I just remember it being surreal.
Graham: It’s a unique feeling. But like everybody says when they accomplish something like that, they say there’s a feeling of tremendous elation, but there’s also a feeling of relief. You did it. It’s over and you did it. They can’t take it away.
Kolkhorst: I ran to center field and hugged Austin Davis, then we both limped into the dogpile and jumped on top. That’s about as good as it gets. It’s nice to be an outfielder where you get to run in and jump on top of the pile. I wouldn’t want to be on the bottom of that thing.
Davis: I didn’t always look at winning the World Series in the major leagues as my goal. I wanted to go to Rice out of high school and I wanted to play in the College World Series and I wanted to win one. When you work for something so long and hard and it comes true, it was strange.
Graham: For the kids, you feel great for them because there’s sort of an immortality about winning the last game. There’s a feeling from that you can’t get anywhere else.
Davis: I really enjoyed coming home to Reckling Park and having what looked like 5,000 people waiting for us when they didn’t have to be. It was pretty intense. I didn’t see that coming. It was shocking.
Ruchti: That was the first year high definition television was debuting. My dad used to go up to Best Buy and they were running College World Series clips to demonstrate what HD looked like. He would just go up there to watch the highlight clips to relive the whole thing.
Janish: Now looking back, it was even cooler to see what we did. Having the opportunity to be around a bunch of alumni over the years and getting to know a lot of people a lot better on that front, we had no idea how far that stretched throughout the Rice community.
Kolkhorst: I think it just shows that at least in baseball, it doesn’t matter what your enrollment is. It doesn’t matter how big your stadium is. You can put a team together and Rice University can compete with anybody in college baseball.
Davis: Sports are sometimes a touchy subject at a higher learning institution like Rice, but I really feel like it put Rice on a different map. I think everyone knew it was such a great institution for higher learning, but just our logo and our Old English R and things like that, it really spread across the country and it was really a big honor to bring that to Rice. I loved that.
Graham: It’s painful that we haven’t won another one. But we still have hope for that.
Extras: Highlights of the 2003 College World Series
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