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Playing Some Serious Softball : For Fountain Valley Pitcher Rice, It’s Not Just a Game

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Softball. Fun game. Saturday morning, grab a bunch of friends, head for the park and play a little softball. Something to keep the kids busy--here, take this glove and bat and go play softball.

A lot of fun. Nothing too serious.

Hold on. Anyone with those perceptions of the game of softball obviously hasn’t met Rae Rice, 14, a freshman at Fountain Valley High School.

To Rice, softball is, while a lot of fun, also a serious business.

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The starting pitcher for the Barons, Rice approaches her sport with the discipline and dedication of a professional. And her hard work is meeting with success.

This season, Rice has a 14-3 record, striking out 185 batters in 156.2 innings with an earned run average of just 0.222, and 0.0 in Sunset League play. She has thrown two no-hitters and three one-hitters for Fountain Valley, which is 19-4-1 and 5-0-1 in league play.

“She’s very businesslike when she’s out there,” Coach Cary Baker said. “If I was going to put a freshman on the mound, I’m glad it was her. She’s a very hard worker.”

Rice is business-like off the field as well. In addition to practicing with her school team, she goes to pitching lessons three times a week, batting lessons once a week and works out in a gym on her own three times a week. When she’s not playing softball or training, she’s studying.

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Socializing isn’t way up there on the priority list.

“Some of my friends on the team think it’s kind of odd, that I don’t go out and I feel bad,” said Rice, who has a 3.5 grade-point average. “But I don’t have very much time.”

Some people, including Baker, have expressed concern to Rice’s father, Ray Rice, that his daughter might be too serious about the game.

“But if you’re going to be the best you can be in a sport, you’re going to miss out on some other things,” he said.

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Ray Rice knows firsthand about trying to be the best he can be at a sport. Football was what he excelled at. His athletic ability earned him a scholarship to Denver University and led to a professional career, playing linebacker for the Denver Broncos and the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

Rice, 52, now works for TRW and still has his drive for excellence. His athletic focus is now weightlifting and he has considered entering power lifting contests but said, “I won’t do it unless I (can) win it.”

His high standards have been passed along to his daughter.

Rice started playing softball when she was 8 on a Little Miss team in Anaheim. She decided the game was a lot more suited to her style than the ballet lessons she had been taking and, ever since, softball has been her sport.

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When she was 10, she joined the Buena Park Sharks and started taking pitching lessons. Last season she played for the Orange County Panthers 15-and-under team, which was the runner-up in the national finals in Boulder, Colo.

The Rices were planning to move from Anaheim and, when choosing where to relocate, they made high school softball programs part of the decision.

Rice approached choosing a high school with the same seriousness she brings to pitching and with the same thoroughness that many people use to select a college.

She and her mother, Laura, looked into academic curriculums as well as the quality of softball programs. They settled on Fountain Valley, impressed by the school and the strong softball program.

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Rice didn’t expect to be the starting pitcher. Senior Marnie Sukla was slated for that job. But Sukla, suffering from a shoulder injury, only started one game, which Rice came in to finish.

Though younger than most of her teammates, Rice hasn’t been intimidated by her new responsibility. She just tries her best, which so far has been pretty good.

“Something I’ve told Rae is that there’s a difference between being the best and being the best you can be,” Rice’s father said. “And if the best you can be turns out to be the best, then that’s great.”

Baker thinks Rice, if she keeps working as hard as she is right now, can be one of the best.

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Though there’s no professional contract on the horizon for Rice, as there was for her father, she and her parents are hoping softball will lead to a college scholarship.

“The main thing is to understand is where you want to go and understand what it takes to get there,” Ray said.

Rice has learned that lesson well. And she’s wary of ever allowing outside interests and social obligations to get in the way.

“I’m not sure I could handle it,” she said. “I might get a taste of this or that and forget about softball. And I have a lot to lose if I quit softball.”

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