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Minute Maid Park gears up for College Classic

No. 1 North Carolina headlines tourney; Houston, Rice set for 13th straight appearance

Top-ranked and undefeated North Carolina and hometown schools Houston and 13th-ranked Rice will join Texas A&M, Baylor and California at this weekend's Astros Foundation College Classic tournament at Minute Maid Park.

The tournament, formerly known as the Houston College Classic, is being held for the 13th consecutive season, with Houston and Rice having played in it each year. Friday afternoon's game between North Carolina and Rice features two of the nation's top pitchers in the Tar Heels' Kent Emanuel and the Owls' Austin Kubitza.

The Owls' strength this year is pitching and defense, with starters Jordan Stephens, John Simms and Kubitza leading the way.

"We might develop into a good-hitting team," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "I like the team makeup and chemistry."

Rice, 10 years removed from winning the national title, returns home to Houston after sweeping four games from Hawaii on the island last weekend.

"I think we're the most traveled team in the country," Graham said.

A young Houston team that features 19 newcomers and starts five freshmen every game enters the tournament with a 2.12 ERA as a team. The Cougars are off to a quick start at 6-2, but face their toughest tests of the season.

"'New' is the key word for us," Cougars head coach Todd Whitting said. "We took the nametags off a couple of weeks ago and started playing. Our better players have to perform."

The schedule for Friday is Baylor vs. California at 12 p.m. CT, North Carolina vs. Rice at 3:30 and Houston vs. Texas A&M at 7 p.m. On Saturday, North Carolina plays California at 12 p.m., Houston vs. Baylor at 3:30 p.m. and Rice vs. Texas A&M at 7 p.m. The tournament concludes Sunday with California playing Houston at 11 a.m., Texas A&M battling North Carolina at 2 p.m. and Baylor taking on Rice at 5:30 p.m.

Baylor (3-5) is coming off a sweep at the hands of UC-Irvine following a banner 2012 season in which it had a 24-game winning streak and won the Big 12. Baylor has also played UCLA and Pepperdine this season.

"We're excited to back in Houston at this event and this early in the season it will be a strong test," Bears coach Steve Smith said. "We're playing the state of California right now."

Texas A&M (7-3) will be playing away from its home in College Station for the first time this year.

"It's an honor to come here," Aggies coach Rob Childress said. "When you do get on the bus on Sunday, whether you went 0-3, 3-0, 2-1, whatever, you get a better idea what you need to do to continue to improve. It's a great litmus test from the standpoint of the caliber of teams here. They're all good, they're all ranked."

Adult tickets are available for a $15 daily admission, as well as a $36 three-day tournament pass. Tickets for high school and college students, with a valid student ID, and children (ages 4-14) are available for $10 daily and $21 for a tournament pass.

Season ticket holders (27-game packages and up) are offered a $10 daily ticket and a $24 tournament pass. Reserved seating is also available in the Insperity Club for $30 per game. To purchase group tickets, which are available for $12 a day, and Insperity Club tickets, please call 713-259-8333. Luxury suites can be purchased for the entire tournament or on a daily basis by calling 713-259-8350.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.
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