This weekend sees the Harvard Baseball team traveling to Houston, Texas to take on the No. 27 Rice Owls in a trio of fixtures spread over three days.
It marks another stop on the Crimson’s customary annual tour of the South before Ivy League play begins on March 30 against Columbia. On its travels so far, the team has played in both Virginia and South Carolina.
“Since the first start of the season, we’ve been obviously traveling a lot and playing great teams,” freshman catcher DJ Link said.
The Harvard squad says that it hopes this strong opening will harden the team against its tough opposition.
“It’s a great experience to play teams of that caliber to start the season to get us ready for the Ivy League season,” Link said.
The price of playing a quality non-conference schedule is the team’s winning record. The Crimson is currently 1-6 and riding a six game losing streak into the weekend. This is nothing out of the ordinary for Harvard, who had starts of 0-9 and 0-17 in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, respectively.
“We’re looking to come out this weekend,” freshman second baseman Mitch Klug said. “Right from the start [to] focus on one inning at a time and then build off that and put a full nine innings together, which would be pretty big for us.”
Despite the grueling schedule thus far, the Crimson cannot expect any let up against the Owls. Although a little shaky so far this season, beginning 11-7, Rice has a proud baseball program which has been a national force in the Wayne Graham era.
Graham took over as coach in 1992 and led the Owls to 12 straight conference championships from 1997-2008. A minor blip in 2009 has been followed by a return to the norm with conference titles in the past three years.
Any Rice fan will remember the national championship team of 2003, which overcame Stanford to become the smallest school to win a national championship at the highest collegiate level in fifty years. That team produced three top-eight MLB draft picks in 2004, a record for any collegiate baseball team.
Suffice it to say that Harvard will be running into something of a powerhouse when it squares off in Reckling Park this weekend. Nevertheless, there is a positive attitude in the locker room.
“I feel like we’re a great team,” Link said. “I feel like if we play fundamentally sound baseball…anything can happen.”
In spite of its record, the Crimson has had bright moments in its opening contests.
A thrilling 10-inning victory over Bucknell on the back of strong pitching from senior Matt Doyle and junior Baron Davis was a surprisingly successful start to the season. The team’s subsequent outings against now-No. 17 Virginia were respectable defeats against such a highly ranked opposition.
“Winning against Bucknell and hanging with Virginia,” Link said. “I wasn’t shocked that we were able to do that.”
The team is still upbeat and believes in its own abilities. The feeling in the locker room is that the difference between them and the top teams is not in quality but in execution.
“It’s a lot about minimizing mistakes because at this level the talent isn’t really all that different,” freshman pitcher Sean Poppen said. “It’s just who can have that talent for the longest period of time.”
This Harvard squad has thrust a number of freshmen into the fire and a number of rookies have answered the call.
Sophomore Brandon Kregel has three RBI in addition to four extra-base hits and four runs scored, while freshman DJ Link leads the team in batting average, posting a .385 average with 10 hits.
New coach Bill Decker has come from Division III Trinity. He led the Bantams to an impressive 2008 season with a national title, 45-1 record, and a Division III-record 44 straight wins.
In the face of strong opposition from Rice, this weekend represents a chance for the Crimson to prove itself on the biggest stage it will play on for the rest of the season.
“We’ve had so many games to come together and gel as a team,” Poppen said. “This weekend we should probably try putting it all together.”
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