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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Baseball

History of the Powerhouse: A dive into Houston baseball’s program


The 1967 Houston baseball team reached the championship game of the College World Series, where it played against Arizona State. The Sun Devils defeated the Cougars 11-2. | Courtesy of UH athletics

The 1967 Houston baseball team reached the championship game of the College World Series where they played against Arizona State. The Sun Devils defeated the Cougars 11-2. | All photos courtesy of UH athletics

The sport of baseball is a unique taste. There are moments when the game slows down and there are others when the red-laced white ball zooms past the infield or rockets into the stands.

America’s pastime has been around the University for 73 years.

When it comes to college baseball, schools like USC,  LSU, Florida and Texas stand out because of their history and success, and Houston has a long and storied one of its own. 

This is the History of the Powerhouse: Houston baseball.

The Early Days

UH first established a baseball program in 1947. Under head coach Edward “Ned” Thompson, who was also a backfield coach for the football team, the Cougars began to compete on the diamond.

The first Houston player to be drafted to the MLB was Bill Henry, who also played in the inaugural UH team. He went on to have a 16-year career in the majors and averaged a 3.26 ERA.

The baseball program suffered from a lot of instability in the first three years of existence, changing head coaches three times in that span, but that all came to an end in 1950 when Lovette Hill took over.

Hill’s tenure

Under Hill, who was the skipper until 1974, the University’s baseball program began to make an impact nationally. 

In 1953, the Cougars made it to the final eight teams in the College World Series bracket for the first time in the program’s history.

Houston returned to the College World Series in 1967 with Hill still at the helm. That team made it past the Texas Longhorns by rallying from a three-run deficit in the NCAA District VI playoffs championship game.

Once in Omaha, Nebraska, the Cougars dropped the first game in the tournament to Stanford and then won three straight games, two of which were one-run wins, to get to the national championship game against Arizona State. However, the Sun Devils won 11-2.

Once Hill reached the end of his career in Houston, he had compiled 343 wins and is still the longest-tenured coach in program history.

Hill is a member of the University’s Hall of Honor and was inducted into the ABCA Hall of Fame in 1975.

Post-Hill

Once Hill’s time as Houston’s skipper ended, Rolan Walton, who won two Southwest Conference Coach of the Year awards in 1975 and 1982, took over as head coach.

Walton coached the Cougars until 1986. In that time, he surpassed his predecessor by winning 378 games and led them to a No. 2 national ranking during the season twice in his career.

Walton also played for the Cougars back in 1951. His No. 6 jersey was retired in 1998 and he was named the team’s first most valuable player in that season after batting .333.

He was inducted into Houston’s Hall of Honor in 2006.

Walton’s tenure was followed up by Bragg Stockton in 1987. He coached the Cougars for eight seasons. He garnered 283 wins and led the Cougars to two NCAA Regional berths during his tenure as the leader of the program.

In 1994, Rayner Noble took over as the skipper of the Cougars.

Noble’s time

Before he was head coach of the program, Noble had a stint as a player for UH in the ‘80s as a pitcher. In 1983, he led the Cougars in lowest ERA (1.32), strikeouts thrown (78) and wins (12).

Before he was head coach of the program, Noble had a stint as a player for UH in the ‘80s as a pitcher. In 1983, he led the Cougars in the lowest ERA (1.32), strikeouts thrown (78) and wins (12).

As baseball coach, he is the winningest one in school history with a 551-420 record.

He has eight NCAA Tournament appearances and three trips to super regionals as he led UH to regional championships in 2000, 2002 and 2003.

The 2000 and 2002 seasons for the Cougars in particular are arguably two of the greatest years in program history. Houston won 48 games and won the Conference USA regular-season championship in both of those years.

In 2000, the Cougars defeated the Owls two out of three games and then defeated Princeton to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals.

“Hosting a regional in 2000 and defeating Rice was incredible,” Esteban Graham said on Twitter when recalling his favorite UH-Rice memory. “Atmosphere was big time.”

Houston’s season, however, came to an end in super regionals at the hands of San Jose State.

Brad Sullivan pitched four shut outs during the 2002 season, which included one during super regionals against Texas. | Courtesy of UH Athletics

Brad Sullivan pitched four shut outs during the 2002 season, which included one during super regionals against Texas.

In 2002, the Cougars went 3-0 in the Mesa regional to advance to the Austin Super Regionals. UH was eliminated after it dropped two of three games to UT. 

That year’s team had five players drafted to the MLB, which included pitchers Chris Snyder and Jesse Crain, who were both taken in the second round.

The following season in 2003, the Cougars went only 37-30 but made a run at regionals. Houston won four straight wins in College Station, including two against Texas A&M, which propelled them to the NCAA Super Regionals on Rice’s campus.

The Owls, however, defeated the Cougars in two out of the three games, which ended Houston’s season that year.

After back-to-back down years in which the Cougars did not compete in the postseason, the 2006 season saw a 39-win resurgence led by Brad Lincoln, who racked up a plethora of awards in route to being taken No. 4 overall in the MLB draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cougars, however, did not win a game at regionals.

After back-to-back down years in which the Cougars did not compete in the postseason, the 2006 season saw a 39-win resurgence led by Brad Lincoln, who racked up a plethora of awards in route to being taken No. 4 overall in the MLB draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cougars, however, did not win a game at that year’s regionals.

The 2008, 42-win season was the final winning year that UH had under Noble. That campaign culminated at yet another regional in College Station where the Cougars dropped two of three games to the Aggies, which prevented them from advancing.

Noble’s last two years at UH were subpar seasons before ultimately both he and the Cougars went their separate ways.

Todd Whitting was given control of the program after Noble’s departure, but his first couple of seasons at the top did not result in an immediate change until 2013 when the Cougars won 36 games. However, that mark was still not good enough to make regionals.

Whitting’s winnings

Houston started the 2014 season strong, winning its first eight contests in a row and an unreal 26 of its first 32 games and never looked back.

The Cougars finished the season 48-18 and were ranked for 13 straight weeks, which included being as high as No. 5 and ending the campaign at No. 9. 

This was also the inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference, and while the team went only 14-9 against the conference in the regular season, they made a run and won the AAC postseason championship tournament title. 

In the Baton Rouge Regional, the Cougars defeated a stacked 46-win LSU team in back-to-back games to open the playoffs, which helped propel them to the super regionals in Austin.

The Cougars’ performance in Louisiana not only helped solidify that the program was back to national relevance, but was also a strong tool for recruitment in the coming years.

“That was when I started to become really interested in the program because I wanted to go to a university that had a shot to go to Omaha every year,” said Jared Triolo, who played in the infield for UH from 2017-19. “That was just one of the first things that caught my eye when I was a high schooler.”

At the NCAA Super Regionals, however, Houston’s run came to an end against the Longhorns again after dropping both games to them.

Houston’s season momentum continued into 2015. However, as the Cougars posted another 40-win season (43-20), the team accumulated 26 home wins and Whitting was named the ABCA South Central Regional Coach of the Year.

This season was highlighted by sophomore Andrew Lantrip’s Third Team All-America honor and freshman left-handed pitcher Seth Romero, who led the league with a 1.94 ERA and was named the AAC Rookie of the Year. 

Once in regionals, however, the Cougars lost their first two games, which were both one-run losses, including a 20-inning 3-2 loss to the Owls, and the season came to an end at Cougar Field.

The 2016 season saw the Cougars’ 40-win season streak snap, winning only 36 games, and while the team did not get to compete in a regional, they did get to the championship game of the AAC championship tournament but fell short to UConn.

2017 was the redemption year for the Cougars following the shadows of success from 2014 and 2015, and the returning players were locked in as they looked to bounce back to that standard.

“The guys who were there for the 2016 season had a chip on their shoulder from the season before,” said Triolo, who was a freshman in 2017. “(They) accepted my freshman class and gave us every opportunity to come in and contribute and help out the team. 

“The culture or message that I caught onto quickly was that the postseason was not a goal but an expectation.”

The Cougars compiled 42 wins in 2017, winning a share of the AAC regular-season championship and also won the conference championship tournament, but split the four regional games they competed in and did not advance.

Houston was led by AAC Player of the Year and Second Team All-American Jake Scheiner, who led the league with 18 home runs, the second-most all-time in a single-season. He hit on a .346 average and had 64 RBIs.

The Current Era

Since 2017, the Cougars have not had another 40-win season, but in 2018 they got to compete in another regional but did not advance.

In 2019 Houston won 32 games, which was the lowest total since 2012, and did not qualify for regionals.

While the 2020 season was shortened due to COVID-19, the Cougars were off to an up and down 6-9 start, but they are optimistic for the team’s future once it is safe for the ball to get rolling on the diamond again.

Before last season began, Houston was fueled to have a bounce-back year and it will be interesting to see how the team is going forward with the extra year of eligibility for student athletes.

One of the key players for the next couple of seasons will be first baseman Ryan Hernandez, who was batting .300 and launched five homers before the season ended.

“He’s going to be a baller,” sophomore infielder Brad Burckel said about Hernandez in February. “He’s going to be a guy that we look to get jobs done and do his thing.”

The one constant over the last decade for Houston has been coach Whitting, and while the team transitions to its next phase in the program, his willingness to defer to his student athletes is a big benefit according to one of his previous players.

“The way that he gave the leaders of the team a chance to lead the team was different from other leadership roles,” Triolo, who is now in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. “It definitely helped me understand the different aspects of being a leader.”

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