Say Hello (And Goodbye) to the George Mason Patriots, the Sacrificial Lambs of the Rice Regional (Update)
When you're the fourth seed in a four-team regional, nothing but fodder for the bigger boys on their way to Omaha, it's not about winning the games. Winning the games would be awesome, but being huge underdogs in a strange ballpark far, far away from the home fans, it's about being competitive. About showing you belong.
The NCAA baseball championships started this past weekend with Rice hosting a round of regional games. The hoopla centered on a Friday afternoon matchup of former rivals Texas and Texas A&M -- a matchup that disappointed the crowd of 6,603 maroon and burnt orange clad fans because of UT running away early with the game. And it was kind of old hat to Rice, a school that's used to hosting regionals and being the top seed in the region. But lost in the shuffle was the team from Fairfax, Virginia playing its first ever baseball games in the state of Texas.
The George Mason Patriots (34-22) were the champions of the Atlantic 10. The Patriots hadn't made the NCAA regionals since 2009 and had won only one of 13 previous regional games. It was also the first time the Patriots would ever face the Owls, Longhorns, and Aggies. They were the sacrificial lambs sent out to sate the appetites of the fans until the big boys could play each other.
George Mason may have been the first team eliminated from the regional, but the Patriots came out with one plan in mind. To prove that they belonged on the same field with the big boys. The Patriots might not have won any games. But Rice sure had to work for a 7-2 win on Friday night -- George Mason was ahead 2-1 in the eighth inning before starter Jared Gaynor tired and let Rice get to him -- and while the Aggies were in front the entire game on Saturday, jumping off a 3-0 lead in the first inning, George Mason didn't give in, stranding 14 runners and running up the pitch counts on the Aggie pitchers. It wasn't until the eighth inning, when the Aggies scored twice to make the score 7-2, that the Aggies appeared to put the game away -- and George Mason still didn't give in, putting two on with one out in the bottom of the ninth before losing 7-3.
"The moment definitely wasn't too big for us," George Mason coach Bill Brown told the media Friday night. "We were very comfortable from the first pitch of the game that we belonged here (the regional) and the stadium. It's always hard for us, because we're always at a disadvantage in these situations. We're always playing in someone else's home turf, in front of their home crowd with the energy in the ballpark behind them, so it's up to us to create our own energy. And we did that."
Rice's Reckling Park was packed for the game with over 4,300 Rice fans for the Rice/George Mason Friday night matchup that was delayed for an hour-and-a-half due to rain. And there were 4243 Aggie fans in the park on Saturday -- for another game that was delayed for over 90 minutes.But the Patriots definitely weren't phased by the spotlight, and made Rice and Texas A&M work much harder than they should have.