After seeing a Conference USA baseball crown slip through their collective claws on the last weekend of the regular season, the Rice Owls came into the conference tournament on a mission.
It didn't come easy and the outcome wasn't decided until late, but the second-seeded Owls claimed an 8-6, see-saw decision over tournament host Southern Miss Sunday afternoon before 3,219 at Pete Taylor Park.
Freshman third baseman Anthony Rendon, the tournament's MVP, got the Owls off to a quick lead with a two-run homer in the first inning, but it was an infield single by first baseman Jimmy Comerota in the bottom of the eighth inning that broke a 6-6 tie and gave Rice its third C-USA tournament title in the past four years.
"I thought we made some good defensive plays and had some good clutch hits, too," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "It was a pretty good game for us, actually. A tough game. Good preparation (for next week's NCAA Regional)."
For the fifth-seeded Golden Eagles, Sunday's loss may have been the final game for Coach Corky Palmer, who announced his retirement on April 30 after a 12-year run at his alma mater.
USM will have to wait and see whether its first run to the tournament championship game for the first time since 2004 was enough to land the Golden Eagles a seventh consecutive regional berth.
"I'm not going to say that we're not going to get in, but I'm sure not going to say that we're in," Palmer said. "It's going to be close."
USM (35-23) chased second-seeded Rice (39-15) down to the wire, but errors proved costly, coughing up three unearned runs to the Owls.
"We made some mistakes, and that was our Achilles' heel all year," Palmer said. "We played hard and had a shot, but golly, they're athletic."
Rice (39-15), which earned the league's automatic berth into the NCAAs, learned Sunday afternoon that it would host a four-team regional at Reckling Park. East Carolina (42-17), which won the regular-season title, also was awarded a regional, giving C-USA two host teams in the NCAA postseason for the time in conference history.
The Owls took a 2-0 lead in its first at-bat when Rendon, C-USA's Player of the Year, smacked a two-out, two-run homer -- his 19th of the season -- off C-USA Pitcher of the Year, USM junior right-hander Todd McInnis.
The lead grew to 4-0 in the fifth inning. Leftfielder Michael Fuda led off with a single, and an out later, first baseman Jimmy Comerota walked, ending McInnis' afternoon. Reliever Cody Schlagel lasted one batter, giving up a single to second baseman Brock Holt to load the bases.
USM brought in starter JR Ballinger, who went eight innings in Thursday's night win over ECU. Ballinger struck out shortstop Rick Hague, and then got catcher Diego Seastrunk to hit a soft chopper to third. But the ball slipped under the glove of USM third baseman Taylor Walker, as Fuda and Comerota scored.
But the Golden Eagles struck back in the sixth with a two-out rally. Designated hitter Corey Stevens doubled and leftfielder Kameron Brunty walked to end the day for Rice starter, left-hander Taylor Wall.
After Joey Archer coaxed a walk from reliever Jared Rogers to load the bases, rightfielder Tyler Koelling unloaded them with a double into the left field corner.
Stevens and Brunty came in on the hit, and Seastrunk was charged with an error when he dropped the relay throw at the plate, allowing Archer to score and Koelling to move up to third. Shortstop B.A. Vollmuth lined a 3-2 pitch into center to score Koelling and tie the game.
The Owls went back in front 6-4 in the bottom of the seventh off the fourth USM pitcher, closer Colin Cargill (3-3), on Seastrunk's two-run double that scored Holt and Hague.
The Golden Eagles tied it again, when Rice reliever Jordan Rogers (8-3) walked Stevens to lead off the eighth, and Brunty followed with his sixth homer of the season, a shot over the right-field wall.
But the Owls pushed across the winning run in the bottom half of the inning, when Comerota's infield single to deep short scored Fuda. Rice tacked on an insurance run when Koelling misplayed Holt's liner in right field, allowing Comerota to score.
Rice right-hander Ryan Berry, who threw a complete-game, two-hitter Thursday, picked up the first career save with a scoreless ninth.
In addition to Rendon, five other Owls were named to the 2009 Conference USA Baseball Championship all-tournament team, including Hague, Seastrunk, Berry Wall and outfielder Steven Sultzbaugh.
USM had four representatives on the 13-man team, McInnis, Ballinger, Stevens and second baseman James Ewing. Tulane had two, shortstop Josh Prince and outfielder Nick Boullosa, while ECU outfielder Trent Whitehead rounded out the squad.
2009 CONFERENCE USA BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM
C Diego Seastrunk, Rice
IF James Ewing, Southern Miss
IF Rick Hague, Rice
IF Josh Prince, Tulane
IF Anthony Rendon, Rice
OF Nick Boullosa, Tulane
OF Steven Sultzbaugh, Rice
OF Trent Whitehead, East Carolina
DH Corey Stevens, Southern Miss
P JR Ballinger, Southern Miss
P Ryan Berry, Rice
P Todd McInnis, Southern Miss
P Taylor Wall, RiceTournament MVP: Anthony Rendon, Rice