April 9, 2009

By Ben Rohde, Atlantic 10
Special to NCAA.com

It was a long winter for Rhode Island shortstop Dan Rhault. With the arrival of spring came the start of his senior season and another chance at pinning down an elusive A-10 crown, something the Rams have yet to achieve since he joined the team.

To get there, Rhault and teammates have already experienced 24-straight games on the road, adverse offseason weather conditions, and a home-field displacement during the fall. They've also earned some of the biggest wins in program history.

Rhode Island (17-12-1/7-2) is fresh off one of the most memorable non-conference runs of any A-10 school in recent memory. With three victories over top-25 teams already in the books, the Rams hope that the success of both the team and that of their No. 3 hitter from Lincoln, R.I., continues well into the postseason.

Rhault has a long history of dealing with adversity both on and off the field. Diagnosed with acute leukemia as a young child, he underwent treatment for nearly four years. Fifteen years later, he remains free of the disease and maintains a positive attitude which he believes has translated to on-field success.

"It's not something I think about a lot, but I would say it gave me a better outlook on life and actually helps me in baseball," says Rhault. "When you're struggling with something like baseball, as I was my sophomore year, it's not the worst thing that can happen. It is something that easily puts things into perspective."

Now batting a stellar .337, Rhault is on pace for career-highs in nearly every major offensive category. He's already equaled his home run total from a year ago, highlighted by his third career grand slam in the Rams' 10-1 win over Dayton on Apr. 4. He was also named the A-10 Player of the Week on Mar. 23 after recording seven hits - three of which were home runs - and batting .467 on the week. His confidence is high and memories of what he admits were a rough 2007 campaign are a distant memory.

It was just less an a week ago that the Rhode Island baseball team collectively set foot on the newly constructed Bill Beck Field for just a single practice before playing its home opener against Dayton, a series in which they swept the then-league leading Flyers.

Like many collegiate teams located in the northern part of the country, Rhode Island is limited in its offseason preparation. It's that challenge that's made the early season accomplishments even more impressive, as the team began its 2009 campaign in early February practicing indoors or on a surface designed for field hockey, having never seen a live pitch in a game-situation until suiting up against N.C. State on Feb. 20.

"It's so difficult," says Rhault of the constraints of preparing for a season indoors. "Balls don't bounce coming off of a wooden gym floor, they just don't bounce right. Ground balls don't come off at the right speed. We haven't seen the ball off a real bat since the fall. And even then, we were playing on a high school field. It's been really difficult and during the first couple games the infield struggled, but we've brought it together lately."

While the Rams would go on to topple a trio of top-25 teams, Rhault credits that first victory as the most important.

"Even though the Miami (Fla.) win and other games were huge, the biggest game for us was our first one against N.C. State," says Rhault. "We came out of a gym, off of a field hockey grass patch, and came out and beat a team which was ranked pretty high last year."

While the arduous road trips of February and March didn't make things any easier for the Rams, it did provide a unique personal opportunity for Rhault. When recently visiting Cincinnati, Ohio for a series with Conference foe Xavier, he was able to contact one of the physicians who helped treat him when he was younger and invited him to a game. The two had not seen each other since his remission and for Rhault, the game definitely had a different feel to it.

"I hadn't seen him in a really long time," says Rault. "The guy had such an influence on my life, so it was really nice."

Last week the Rams were finally able to return home for their first games of competition at Bill Beck Field. The environmental horticulture and turf grass management major welcomed the change to the vastly improved playing surface and when asked of the difference between their old field and the new, Rhault can't help but laugh.

"Doesn't even compare, it was like playing on the beach," says Rhault. "Couldn't run on the old one, couldn't field...couldn't do anything on it. It's going to be a lot easier to play at our new one."

Rhode Island will have plenty of opportunities get used to the new park this month. With the bulk of its home schedule and league-play getting into full-swing, the Rams hope to fend off a host of talented teams looking to keep Rhody from reaching its seventh-straight Conference championship on May 20-23, which is the longest active streak in the A-10.

"All the guys before us really set the tone," says Rhault of the Rhody's string of appearances. "To be apart of the A-10 Championship, for hopefully four years in a row for me, it's meant a lot. It just goes to show that we continuously work hard and we always go about our business the same way and will keep trying to do it that way."

While the victories over No. 8 Miami, No. 11 Oklahoma State, and No. 25 Ohio State all came in less than a two-week span, Rhault is committed to ensuring that his team's best days are still ahead.

Whether it's on the diamond or off, whatever the challenge, it's safe to assume that it will be met by Rhault with the same will and determination to overcome that he's always had.

Rhode Island is slated to next take on La Salle (13-15/2-7) for a three-game series starting Apr. 11.