Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Since the inception of the American Athletic Conference, no team has won more conference championships than the University of Houston with five. A founding member of the American, Houston has won at least 11 conference games each year, a feat matched by no other team in the conference. In that same span, Houston also has four Regional appearances and one trip to a Super Regional.
So why suggest that Houston is looking to reestablish its conference dominance in 2021? The short answer is their ever-improving conference foes. In the inaugural season of the American, two teams made the NCAA Tournament: Houston and Louisville. Louisville promptly left the conference dealing a blow to the conference's baseball prowess. However the addition of ECU and Tulane in 2014 and Wichita State in 2017 once again bolstered the depth of the conference, elevating the American to "power" conference status in college baseball. Since being a two-bid league in its first year, the American has averaged 3.4 Regional bids per season.
If the shortened 2020 season is any sort of harbinger of what is to come, the best is still ahead for the American. Three teams finished in the top 20 of College Baseball Nation's final poll of the year, and two teams are currently ranked in the preseason top 25 (#20 ECU and #25 UCF).
University of Houston head coach Todd Whitting knows what he's up against. "The American is a three to four bid league. Every team in this league is committed in terms of facilities." Whitting told College Baseball Nation.
Houston has more than kept up with the facilities arms race. Don Sanders Field at Darryl and Lori Schroeder Park, home of the Houston Cougars, has seen multiple renovations in the last decade alone. Upgrades to the clubhouse occurred in 2011, and a 1,500 square foot video board (second in size only to Arkansas) was added in 2015, along with improved turf. The field was voted as the eighth best ballpark in the country by fans.
For Whitting and the Cougars, success has always started on the mound. The Houston pitching staff has notched a 3.14 team ERA over the past six complete seasons, but the 15-game 2020 season marked a more than one run increase over that average. "We have some holes in the weekend rotation," said Whitting. To that end, the Cougars have welcomed 29 new faces in the fall, including 20 transfers. Whitting noted two standout arms from the transfer class: Jaycob Deese and Ben Sears. Deese averaged over a strikeout per inning for Galveston College in 2020, and Sears fanned an impressive 23 over 11.1 innings, without allowing a walk. Whitting believes both will play a key role in his 2021 pitching staff which is looking to reestablish itself as one of the premier staffs in the country.
Whitting likes what he sees at the plate, as well. Ryan Hernandez exploded onto the national stage this summer during his stint with the Texas Collegiate League. Hernandez was named to College Baseball Nation's All-Texas Collegiate League team and was picked by the league as their player of the year. Whitting had high praises for the righty power bat. "We internally knew how good he is, and now everyone around the country is seeing it." Whitting projects Hernandez along with lefty slugger Steven Rivas to fill the three and four spots in the lineup.
The 2021 Houston Cougars have a chance to be disruptive on the bases in Whitting's reckoning. "This is the most physical team we've ever had. It's the fastest, most physical team. Seven guys can all steal bases." Combined with power in the middle of the lineup, the Cougars offense may be able to take some pressure off of the pitching staff.
What is the goal for Houston in the American for the 2021 season? The same as it always is says Whitting: "win a championship." With the influx of talent, particularly on the mound, and the balance of the offense, it is easy to believe in the 2021 Houston Cougars. College Baseball Nation has already put the Cougars amongst the 76 teams we think will compete at the top of Division I baseball in 2021, and we fully expect Houston to be in the running for a Regional bid. If the pitching staff shores up to the degree we expect, Houston will be knocking on the door of the top 25.