Lauren Rice has yet to throw a pitch for the Morrison High School softball team, but she already has her college future mapped out.
The 14-year-old Filly freshman verbally committed to play college softball at the University of Missouri, during a campus visit over the weekend.
"It's very weird; I just can't believe it," Rice said. "A lot of the seniors here don't even know where they want to go, and I already know where I'm going to be in 4 years."
"It's so crazy, just happening so fast," Lauren's father, Larry, added. "She was just given the offer Saturday, and she took it. It's still all sinking in, but she's got the drive to do it."
A veteran of the ASA and travel ball circuits, Rice played for the Clinton (Iowa) Commettes for 2 years, then with the Quad Cities Firebirds for 3 years. In January, she joined the elite Beverly Bandits out of Chicago, playing in tournaments all over the country as part of the Premier Girls Fastpitch organization.
Rice, who had already received full-ride scholarship offers from Ohio State, Boston College and Illinois, visited Missouri last weekend. She spent Friday with head coach Ehren Earlywine, his staff, and the team, then participated in a prospect camp on Saturday.
The first pitch Rice threw at the camp was clocked at 70 mph – about 100 mph in baseball terms – and Earlywine offered her a scholarship on the spot. While she can't sign an official letter of intent until her junior year, she told the Tigers she'd be coming their way in 4 years.
"I can't believe I hit 70; I'm only 14," Lauren said. "I was so excited, and then they offered me a scholarship … Missouri was my first choice, and I loved the campus and coaches and players, and it all worked out."
"She knew going in that she was going to accept it if they offered," Larry said. "She's been talking to Coach Earlywine every week for the past couple of months, and when they invited her down there, she was ready."
The main criteria Rice was looking for in a college was playing for a top-tier program which would give her the chance to play in the College World Series, as well as someplace she felt comfortable in a family-type atmosphere. Missouri easily fit that mold.
"It feels so awesome to make this decision so early," Rice said. "I don't have to worry about impressing people all the time now. I get to go out and have fun for 4 years. I really want to help Morrison win another state title, and hopefully we can make that happen."
The spotlight has never really bothered Rice. She was a main cog in the Firebirds' two ASA state championships, and plays with blue-chip players from five different states with the Beverly Bandits. Her fellow starting pitcher with the Bandits, Megan Beaubien, recently committed to the University of Michigan.
Larry, a Morrison police officer, estimates the family has spent between $12,000 and $15,000 per year for Lauren to play summer ball and work out with professional hitting and pitching instructors since she was 8.
But it's paying off right now for Lauren, who appreciates so much the sacrifice her parents have made that she thanked them on Facebook immediately upon accepting Missouri's offer.
Under NCAA rules, Rice is allowed to contact the Missouri coaches via phone and email as much as she wants, as long as the Tigers' staff doesn't initiate or reciprocate. She can also speak with coaches during campus visits – both official and unofficial – and camps.
The Rices know that there will inevitably be backlash from people about her early commitment. But it's something both parents and daughter believe she can handle.
"People will want to pass judgment, saying she's too young or hasn't yet proven that she deserves it," Larry said. "In fact, I don't really agree with how this system works; I think it's a little stupid. But girls mature faster than boys physically, so the recruiting starts earlier, and if we don't play the game, she loses out on the opportunity of her dreams."
"I know people will say a lot of bad stuff, and really be targeting me during softball season," Lauren added, "but I don't care what other people think. That stuff doesn't bother me, and I'm planning to have the last laugh in the end."
She is the third Filly to play softball at Missouri, following in the footsteps of sisters Michaele and Abby Vock, who were members of the Tigers' CWS teams in 2009, '10 and '11. Rice said she's talked to Abby Vock about Missouri, but mainly just about the coaches and what Abby learned during her time in the Tigers program.
"That program is just absolute class," Larry said, "and we're proud and honored for Lauren to be able to follow the Vocks to Missouri."
Larry said Earlywine called Phil Vock, Michaele and Abby's father, on Sunday after Lauren accepted Missouri's scholarship offer, and told Phil, "That young lady just made my Christmas."
Lauren was floored.
"That's pretty awesome; I've never heard that from anybody before," she said. "I just feel so happy that he feels that way, and I'll never forget that."
Family: Parents Larry & Kristy, sister Grace (12)
FYI: After 6 years of ASA and travel softball, Rice verbally committed over the weekend to play softball at the University of Missouri. … Former Fillies stars Michaele and Abby Vock also played for Tigers, earning College World Series trips ion 2009, 2010 & 2011.