May 31, 2003


CBI Live
Kolkhorst, Niemann lead Owls past Shockers
Rice advances to title game

By Jonathan Yardley

Rice Thresher

Special to


Jonathan Yardley is a Rice University sophomore, sports editor of the Rice Thresher and a radio announcer for Rice baseball on the Rice University sports network.


HOUSTON-Rice leftfielder and leadoff man Chris Kolkhorst has earned a reputation as a big-game player in his two years with the Owls, and he only added to his resume Saturday.


Kolkhorst lofted a three-run home run over the right-field fence with two out in the top of the second inning, leading the hosting Owls (50-10) to a 10-1 demolition of third-seeded Wichita State (48-26).


“In the playoffs you need two-out hits,” Kolkhorst said. “They’re huge, and they kill the other team.”


Kolkhorst sparked Rice’s victory in the regional championship last year against Washington and also had a walkoff three-run home run against Houston last year. In March of this year, his double ended Rice’s extra-inning win over defending national champion Texas.


Kolkhorst was not the only Owl packing power on Saturday, as No. 2 hitter Paul Janish and No. 3 hitter Vincent Sinisi each added home runs.


“[Production from the top of the order] is very gratifying,” head coach Wayne Graham said. “It puts the other team down quick.”


The 10 runs were more than enough for sophomore right-hander Jeff Niemann, who survived first-inning control problems to improve to a remarkable 15-0 on the season. With the pitching and hitting covered, Rice also put its defense together, playing a second consecutive errorless game highlighted by standout defensive plays from middle infielders Janish and Enrique Cruz.


Left-hander Steve Ulmansiek started for Wichita State, but Rice’s four left-handed hitters were not bothered – Kolkhorst, Sinisi, Austin Davis, and Dane Bubela combined to go 5 for 15, and Kolkhorst and Sinisi’s homers came against Ulmansiek.


“Our left-handed hitting is unusual in that they have historically hit lefties very well,” Graham said. “I used to try to get more right-handed bats in the lineup against lefties, but I don’t worry about that anymore.”


It wasn’t a sure bet early for Rice, however, despite Kolkhorst scoring in the top of the first on a Cruz groundout for a 1-0 lead. Niemann walked two hitters in the first inning and gave up a run on an RBI single from designated hitter Bryan Erstad to tie the game.


“I was leaving my fastball up,” Niemann said. “I knew I had good stuff, I just needed to get my control.”


Niemann settled down to retire 17 of 18 from the first-seventh innings, including 12 hitters in a row from the third through the seventh. The 6-9 right-hander struck out 10 and did not walk a hitter after the first inning.


“Early on, I was trying to put every ball on the corner,” Niemann said. “Later, I hit the outer half and let my defense work for me.”


The Rice defense came through, taking Rice fans back to the Owls’ 30-game winning streak earlier in the season. The hitters salted the game away in the sixth inning, taking a 7-1 lead on an RBI squeeze bunt from catcher Justin Ruchti and a single from Kolkhorst, then sealing it on Janish’s two-run homer down the left-field line. Wichita State head coach Gene Stephenson agreed that Rice was on top of its game.


“They had tremendous pitching, and they executed very well,” Stephenson said. “They may not be able to play any better than they played today.”


Stephenson’s squad has the tough task of regrouping for tonight’s elimination game against Mississippi. The Shockers beat Ole Miss 4-2 Friday night, but will be more tired than the Rebels after playing the afternoon game in 97-degree heat. Stephenson, already without leading hitter and sparkplug Phil Napolitan for the remainder of the season, said he is unsure of the status of outfielders Nick Blasi and Drew Moffitt after their fourth-inning collision led to both being removed later in the game.


“The heat was tremendous,” Stephenson said. “It’ll be a minor miracle if we can come back. We need a dominating pitching performance from David Sanders.”


Sanders was the Most Valuable Player of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament after pitching Wichita State to victory in the tournament’s final game. Winning without Blasi, the leadoff man, and Moffitt, the leading power hitter, would be a tough task.


The winner of tonight’s elimination game will have to beat Rice twice tomorrow, beginning at 1 p.m. Home-field advantage has been a big boost for Rice, which drew 3,769 fans to Saturday’s game, breaking a school record with more than 102,000 fans at Reckling Park on the season. Graham declined to name a starting pitcher for tomorrow, but sophomores Wade Townsend and Josh Baker are the most likely candidates.