Conference USA preparing for tournament

After winning the 2009 Conference USA regular season title, East Carolina will be the No.1 seed at the 2009 C-USA Baseball Championship, which begins Wednesday at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg, Miss. The Pirates secured the crown after finishing off a three-game sweep of Memphis, while UAB rallied to defeat Rice on Saturday. For East Carolina (41-15), it is its second Conference USA regular season championship, as the Pirates won the 2004 title with a league-record 25 conference victories.

The Pirates will face UCF (22-33) in the third game of the tournament on Wednesday at 4 p.m. CDT. The Knights (9-15 in C-USA) punched their ticket to the tournament by taking two-of-three games from Houston this weekend. East Carolina has been one of the top hitting teams in the nation all season, led by senior 2B Ryan Wood (.391, 20 2B, 13 HR, 55 RBI)), senior OF Stephen Batts (.368, 19 2B, 13 HR, 58 RBI) and junior DH Kyle Roller (.335, 13 HR, 65 RBI). Junior 2B Shane Brown, who earned National Hitter of the Week honors on April 27, has been UCF’s top performer, pacing the club in average (.345), while smacking 20 doubles and driving in 44 runs. ECU won all three games when the teams met back during the opening weekend of conference play.

Rice be seeded second and make its tourney debut in the 12:30 p.m. CDT game on Wednesday, facing seventh-seeded Marshall (22-30, 9-15). The Owls feature one of the nation’s top freshmen in Dick Howser Trophy semifinalist Anthony Rendon (.380, 17 HR, 58 RBI). Rice has a pair of outstanding starting pitchers that have battled injuries, but are healthy going into the tournament in junior righthanders Ryan Berry (6-0, 2.49 ERA, 49 K’s, 12 BB) and Mike Ojala (3-0, 1.58 ERA, 55 Ks, 16 BB). The Thundering Herd counter with a couple of productive batters in sophomore 1B Victor Gomez (.329, league-leading 18 HR, 61 RBI) and senior OF Nate Lape (.290, 10 HR, 35 RBI). Rice won two-of-three when these teams met in Houston in mid-April.

The championship will get underway at 9:00 a.m. EDT on Wednesday when No. 6 seed UAB (29-25, 10-13) takes on No. 3 seed Houston (25-29, 13-11). The Blazers and Cougars met during the opening weekend of conference play, with UH taking two-of-three in Houston. UAB has both speed and power in its lineup, as senior OF Brint Hardy ranks second in the nation in stolen bases with 46, while junior C/DH Digger Towe hits a team-best .350 with 14 doubles, 9 homers and 60 RBI. Houston is led offensively by sophomore SS Blake Kelso (team-best .346 average, 16 2B), while junior relief pitcher Donnie Joseph (2.25 ERA, 9 saves) has emerged as one of the top closers in Conference USA this spring. Houston will be playing in the opening game of the tournament for the third straight year.

Host Southern Miss (32-22, 12-12) earned the No. 5 seed and opens its tourney play against No. 4 seed Tulane in the final game of the opening day at 7:30 p.m. CDT. The Golden Eagles feature sophomore RHP Todd McInnis (7-4, 2.68 ERA, 62 K, 21 BB) and senior OF Bo Davis (.373, 10 HR, 47 RBI). Tulane counters with junior 1B Sam Honeck (.332, 16 HR, 69 RBI) and freshman C Jeremy Schaffer (.318, 14 HR, 54 RBI). Tulane won two-of-three games when the teams met in Hattiesburg in late April. This is just the second time (2002) that these charter members of C-USA have met in the opening round of the tournament.

Each game of the championship will be streamed live on ConferenceUSA.com. The championship game of the tournament on Sunday, May 24 will be televised on a same-day tape delay basis by CBS College Sports. The title game will air on CBS C at 6:30 p.m. CDT. The tournament champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship.