The 2019 Rice baseball season saw mixed results and no NCAA Tournament bid, but head coach Matt Bragga is confident about the progress made in Year 1.
Last summer Matt Bragga hopped in the car and made the drive from Austin to Houston. Many Texans know the route, some have taken it fairly often. For Bragga, everything was new. He stopped off at a Men’s Wearhouse, bought a suit and continued on to South Main for an interview. It wasn’t long afterward that he was introduced as Rice baseball’s newest head coach.
At that press conference, Bragga said all the things you’d expect a new head coach to say. He talked about how excited he was to be at Rice, how hard it had been to leave his former school and how he was ready for the task at hand. A year later, Bragga remains resolute the program is going in the right direction, but he’d be lying if he’d said he thought it was going to be easy.
“It’s been 15 years [since being hired at Tennessee Tech]. I forgot how hard taking over a program was.” Bragga says, looking back at the 2019 season, “but that’s the fun of it, that’s the challenge. That’s why you do what you do.”
A year of inconsistency
There were some days when it felt like hard was putting things lightly. Rice lost their opener to Rhode Island in extra innings and five in a row to ranked competition (Texas, Arizona and UC Irvine) early in the non-conference portion of the schedule. There were flickers of hope, including wins over in-state powers Baylor, TCU and Houston.
That’s kind of how the season went. The team bounced from cavernous depths to unbelievable highs as they went from series to series. They’d sweep a quality opponent like Louisiana Tech, then turn around and drop three in a row to Western Kentucky. Sometimes there wasn’t much of a rhyme or reason.
At the end of the season, though, the 26-33 overall record was rather indicative of the season as a whole. Rice wasn’t a bad baseball team in 2019, but they weren’t excellent either. Consistency and the thirst for a true identity and a unified culture were marked areas in need of improvement.
Willing to go the distance
Bragga builds cultures. The reason he drove from Austin to Houston in the summer of 2018 was because he’d taken a Tennessee Tech program with no historical success to the cusp of the College World Series.
Despite losing to Texas in a decisive winner-take-all game, Bragga had already proven he had what it takes to reach the sports’ highest levels. What got him a seat at the table was no surprise to Bragga. It wasn’t a five-step plan to get to Omaha. It was dependent on creating an atmosphere and a system which enabled his team to get there.
“You as a coach build those expectations… At the end of the day, I got hired because I’m a good baseball coach and I’ve built good cultures where I’ve been. That’s what my focus is on. If my focus is on [getting to the College World Series] I’m hosed.”
Culture has been on his mind a lot lately. “I don’t think we’re tough enough and that is on me,” he remarked in the weeks following the end of the Owls’ 2019 season. That toughness, both mental and physical, has been one of the things Bragga has leaned into this year. By and large, the attitude is changing. “I could not have asked for a better first year in terms of our guys buying into what is we’re doing, he said.” But as Bragga knows as well as anyone else, it’s going to take time.
It took more than a decade for Bragga to take Tennessee Tech from a glorified high school field and a shoestring budget to being one game away from college baseball’s greatest achievement. The resources and commitment at Rice outweigh the support he was able to garner at his previous stop, allowing for an expedited ramp up. That’s a reality that hastens Bragga’s confidence.
Transitioning from rebuild to reload
Rice will lose two Top 5 MLB Draft selections following the 2019 season: Matt Canterino (Twins) and Evan Kravetz (Reds). They’ll solidify some of their roster deficiencies with important JUCO additions. The lineup will look different, but that might be because guys who were hitting at the top third of the lineup are pushed back to seventh or eighth in 2020.
The new look Owls will have more power at the plate. They’ll be more disciplined in the field, a facet of the game which they improved on significantly during the 2019 season. Rice began the season with an eight-error game in non-conference play against Arizona. They finished as the best fielding club in the conference tournament. Change is coming, one step at a time.
Bragga is under no illusions that gradual shifts will be enough for a program with the rich tradition of Rice baseball. But he’s confident that his abilities combined with the talent and resources available to him at South Main will produce a winning formula, sooner rather than later.
“I’ve dreamed since I started coaching baseball 23 years ago to coach at a premier baseball program in the country… That’s what Rice is. This is a goal that’s been on my mind for 23 years,” Bragga declared, “This program is going in the right direction. We’re going to get this program to the pinnacle of college baseball. I believe that with all my heart.”
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