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Owls fly through Houston College Classic unscathed

HOUSTON -- There's something about playing in the big ballpark downtown that brings out the best in Rice.

Timely hitting and strong pitching enabled the Owls to sweep through the Houston College Classic, becoming the only team to win all three of its games in the tournament at Minute Maid Park.

The Owls notched victories over Oklahoma and Texas before punctuating the run with a 5-4 comeback victory over Texas Tech Sunday afternoon.

"Anytime you can play well against good opponents like we did is important," veteran Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "And playing like this in our home city means something for us, too."

The Owls' final victory over Tech wasn't an artistic success. But they made plays when they needed them to finish with a flourish, pushing their record at Minute Maid Park to 17-7 in eight tournaments.

Catcher Adam Zornes came up with two huge plays in the eighth inning Sunday that provided the margin of victory against the Red Raiders. Zornes battled before producing a game-winning single in the eighth inning. The big hit powered the Owls to their fifth straight victory after opening the season with two straight one-run losses at Long Beach State.

"I felt like I was just battling the ball," Zornes said. "He did a good job of keeping it down and I just tried to go up at the plate and protect it."

Earlier in the inning, Zornes made a spectacular tag at the plate to snuff out Tech's most promising late-inning rally. Joey Kenworthy appeared to have a promising chance to score on Taylor Ashby's single. Chad Mozingo's throw to the plate appeared late, but Zornes wheeled quickly to nab the runner.

"These guys never quit," Graham said. "Adam Zornes was absolutely incredible. He got the game-winning hit and made the game-saving play defensively. You can't get much better than that."

The Owls are only the fifth team in the eight-season history of the tourney to sweep all of their games. The Owls accomplished the feat at the first tournament in 2001, along with Texas (2004), Baylor (2005) and Vanderbilt (2007).

The Owls took advantage of a strong start from Ryan Berry against Oklahoma in the first game and followed it up with two impressive power performances in triumphs over Texas and Texas Tech.

Mozingo, Diego Seastrunk and Rick Hague all clubbed homers against Texas ace Kenn Kasparek in an impressive 10-4 victory over the Longhorns on Saturday.

Seastrunk was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament after hitting .583 with two homers, five RBIs and 13 total bases.

After scoring only five runs in their season-opening three-game series at Long Beach State, the Owls have rebounded, averaging nine runs during their five-game winning streak.

"This may surprise some people, but we've got some pretty good power this season," Graham said. "And we played like it through the weekend."

Forlorn Horns

The other big story of the weekend was the uncharacteristic struggles of Texas, which came into the tournament ranked 14th by Baseball America.

The Longhorns didn't play to their ranking, losing their first two games before escaping with an 8-7 victory over Houston in 10 innings in the tournament's last game.

Freshman Connor Rowe delivered a game-winning single in his first college at-bat to provide the victory after Texas had squandered a 6-1 lead earlier in the game.

"If I would have hit it any harder, it wouldn't have been a hit," said Rowe, who had been inserted as a pinch runner in the ninth inning. "I had no idea I would be hitting in a situation like that. I had never played designated hitter in any game before that."

The victory was particularly big for the Longhorns, who committed nine errors in their first two tournament losses. They allowed Houston to climb back in the Sunday night game after several baserunning blunders.

"It would have been a long bus ride back to Austin if we hadn't won that game," Texas pitcher Cole Green said. "It will be a long trip as it is, but it would have really been long if we didn't win the game."

The struggling Longhorns compiled a fielding average of .899 in the first two games of the tournament, committing four errors and allowing two unearned runs in a 5-4 loss to Tennessee and five errors and three unearned runs in the loss to Rice.

"There's a sense of embarrassment after this, there really is," said Texas right fielder Kyle Russell, who committed two errors in the Sunday night game.

Texas' fielding struggles against Rice were the first time the Longhorns committed five errors in a game since a 10-9 triumph over Kansas State on April 9, 2006. But the miscues were an aberration, according to Graham.

"Texas is not going to play like that," he said. "They've got talent and they'll get everything straightened out. I still predict there's a very good chance they might get to [the College World Series in] Omaha."

The fielding woes trumped an uncharacteristic performance by 6-foot-10 right-hander Kenn Kasparek, who was touched up for a career-worst three homers allowed against Rice. Kasparek had allowed nine homers in the previous 143 innings of his college career.

Welcome home

Texas Tech pitcher Nathan Karns had waited a long time for some pitching success in his home state. That's why his effort Saturday against Tennessee was so important for him and his team.

Karns originally signed with Texas coming out of Martin High School in Arlington before moving to North Carolina State with former Texas pitching coach Tom Holliday.

But Karns was seldom used with the Wolfpack, spurring his desire to come back home. He transferred to Texas Tech after his freshman season.

He earned the win in Tech's 7-3 triumph over Tennessee Saturday afternoon, striking out five and scattering four hits in five innings against the Volunteers.

"It feels great to be back," Karns said. "I stayed on my fastball and started getting some off-speed pitches as the game went on. I felt more comfortable and relaxed coming in."

Major league scouts have been drooling about Karns' pitching velocity. But his future development will rely on developing more than merely his physical tools.

"I thought he was very good, and even dominant at times," Tech associate head coach Dan Spencer said. "He's a big leaguer walking in a 20-year-old body with a 20-year-old's mind. But he's learning as he goes."

Karns' early work this season has been set back by a strained oblique muscle. How the mishap occurred still has Spencer shaking his head in bemusement.

"Being the big-time athlete he is, he was playing catch with a guy and lunged for a ball," Spencer said. "Then he turned himself in a weird way and it happened."

Lights out

Oklahoma freshman Michael Rocha struggled to keep his emotions in check when he pitched on Sunday.

Rocha, who grew up in Buda, Texas, has dreamed of playing at Minute Maid Park all of his life.

"Being out here was a rush. On my first pitch, my hand was shaking so bad," Rocha said. "I've followed the Houston Astros all my life. I'm still a fan. It was a big thrill to play here."

Despite his butterflies, Rocha scattered two hits in a strong eight-inning outing in the Sooners' 2-0 triumph over Tennessee. It enabled the Sooners to finish the tournament with a 2-1 record.

Rocha retired the first 12 Tennessee batters he faced. But his most impressive work came in the fifth inning against the Volunteers, when he extricated himself from a bases-loaded, no-out jam by striking out two hitters and coaxing Cody Grisham to pop out.

"Basically all I did was throw hoping to get them to hit it," said Rocha, who struck out seven and walked none in a strong 80-pitch effort. "I wanted to get my infielders involved."

Jake McCarter pitched a clean ninth inning for the Sooners, enabling them to pick up the fifth shutout in the history of the classic.

"We thought he could have gone a complete game, but we wanted Jake to do his job," Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said. "Rocha has as much movement on a fastball as I've ever seen and he's a true freshman. He's not throwing the ball hard. He just lets the ball work. I thought he did a good job pitching out of jams."

Few teams have started the season with as difficult an opening schedule as Oklahoma, which split at preseason No. 1 UCLA last weekend before coming to Houston.

The Sooners struggled in a 7-2 loss against Rice ace Ryan Berry in the first game before bouncing back to win their final two games of the weekend.

"The big thing is that we're young and we're winning as we learn," Golloway said. "I saw what kind of club we have last weekend. We have talent."

The Sooners' big start has come despite ace right-hander Stephen Porlier sitting out the first two weeks of the season with inflammation in his pitching shoulder. His status is uncertain for Oklahoma's home games this week against North Dakota State and Western Illinois, Golloway said.

Bunts and bloops

• Rice led all teams with four players selected to the all-tournament team. The Owls' selections included Hague, Mozingo, Berry and Seastrunk. Other choices included Brian Pounds, Jake Stewart and Wes Musick of Houston; Roger Kieschnick and Kenworthy of Tech; Mike Gosse and Rocha of Oklahoma; Tennessee's Bryan Morgado and Cameron Rupp of Texas.

• The hitter-friendly confines of Minute Maid Park proved to be a unique challenge for Rice pitcher Chris Kelley compared to the more expansive Reckling Park where he usually pitches. "It is a different approach we use when we're here," Kelley said. "You try to keep them off balance. We played some great-hitting ballclubs. You just have to keep them guessing."

• The teams played with surprising combativeness for so early in the season. Texas coach Augie Garrido was ejected from the Longhorns' loss against Tennessee for disputing a close play at third place. Rice pitching coach David Pearce was bounced in the eighth inning of the Owls' victory over Texas -- with a 9-4 lead at the time of his ejection to boot -- for disputing balls and strikes. And Houston coach Rayner Noble did not accompany his team to the ballpark for Friday's game against Texas Tech after he was ejected from a game earlier in the week against Rice. Before facing Rice starter Matt Langwell in Sunday's final game of the tournament, Texas Tech had faced seven straight left-handed opposing starting pitchers. "I've never seen anything like it," Texas Tech coach Larry Hays said. "Some of our guys haven't gotten off the bench because of who we've been playing."

• Shortening the number of weeks during the season has resulted in a compact schedule. Most teams have trimmed a day of practice as a result. "It's a little different this year," Zornes said. "But most of us would rather play in games than practice."

• Teams playing in the 2009 Houston College Classic will include Houston, Rice, Baylor, Texas A&M, UCLA and USC. It will be the first time in the tournament for either California school. Sunday's games attracted an attendance of 8,322, after crowds of 13,979 on Saturday and 7,479 on Friday.

Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.