After growing up in Morrison and playing softball with her fellow Filly seniors since fifth grade, Lauren Rice really missed her best friends last year.
So when she returned to MHS for her senior season after being homeschooled her junior year, she was thrilled to be back together with them – and they were just as happy to have her back.
What transpired was another fantastic season for Morrison softball, one that ended for the fifth time at the state tournament at EastSide Centre, and for the fourth time finished with a victory. Surrounded by a talented group of teammates, Rice was at the center of it all, pitching all but two innings for the Fillies and leading their offensive charge to third place in Class 2A.
“I missed these girls a lot, and I knew coming back that I was going to be a big part of the team and I needed to be the best for my team at all times,” Rice said. “I wish I would’ve been here last year, but they did great without me – and I knew we’d have a chance to go to state this season with us all back together.”
Rice went 22-2 with a 1.18 ERA, allowing 102 hits and 26 earned runs in 154 innings, striking out 217 and walking 44. She also led the Fillies in batting average (.500), on-base percentage (.591) and RBIs (36), finished second on the team with 36 hits, and was third in slugging percentage (.806), doubles (7) and home runs (5) despite ranking sixth on the team in at-bats.
“From the beginning of practices, we knew what we had in her,” classmate Emma Melton said. “We just wanted to have the best season that we could, and then seeing her toward the postseason, we just knew that she was going to be on fire, both batting and pitching; she was amazing all-around.
“She definitely was the most important part of our team, and without her, we wouldn’t have been able to place third at state.”
Before she even threw a
single pitch in high school, Lauren Rice already knew where she was going to
After attending a camp at the University of Missouri following her eighth-grade year, Tigers coach Ehren Earlywine made her an offer and she accepted.
Earlywine is no stranger to Morrison. He successfully recruited sisters Michaele and Abby Vock to Columbia in the late 2000s; Abby became a starting shortstop, and Michaele ended up being a graduate assistant after her playing days.
Because of the success of two of its favorite softball daughters, Morrison is also a fan of the Tigers. Rice was no exception – and when she got the offer, she jumped at it.
“That was always one of the top schools I wanted to go to, and I’m glad that I did,” Rice said about her early verbal commitment. “I’m even happier today that I’m still going there.”
But being a future Division I player before even going through an offseason workout in high school is bound to put a target on your back. Rice realized this right away, and all it did was push her to work harder.
“That never really bothered me,” Rice said. “I strive off competition, and people that want to beat me, I just love that. That’s just how I am.”
And while she never experienced the pressure of performing to attract college coaches’ interest, or having sleepless nights trying to decide where she wanted to continue her playing career, she did have the weight of expectations on her shoulders.
But that didn’t even really bother her, either.
“I always had to do well for my team, but also represent Mizzou in every way,” Rice said. “So I worked my hardest, no matter what. Every team that I played, I never took any pitches off, never took anything for granted. I knew I needed to play my best at all times, and just did my thing out there.”
Being a Division I athlete always brings with it scrutiny. Lauren Rice felt that the minute she first took the field for a varsity softball game as a freshman.
But it helped that she was a part of a solid pitching rotation, with fellow freshman Brooke Stralow and then-sophomore Lauren Pannier taking some of the pressure off of Rice, and the trio worked well together for her first two seasons at Morrison.
The summer before her junior year, however, Rice became a part of a Premier Girls Fastpitch travel-ball team out of Southern California. With the taste of top-notch national competition, Rice wanted more. Thus she was homeschooled as a junior, so she could play with the Firecrackers-Rico team.
That team went on to win an 18U Gold PGF national championship in Huntington Beach, California last summer, and Rice was one of 32 players from the Central United States region (13 states)– and one of only six from Illinois – to receive PGF High School All-American honors this spring.
She also played for the Chicago Bandits of the PGF, sticking to mostly Midwestern tournaments to hone her craft.
“I did it for a change of scenery, and also trying to test myself,” Rice said of the year away from the Fillies. “It was hard being away from my friends, but I wouldn’t change anything about these last 3 or 4 years.”
Back in Morrison this season, Rice ended up being the only pitcher the Fillies had. Stralow tore the labrum in her left hip toward the end of the 2016 season, and then suffered the same injury while trying to come back from the first one over the winter – and with Pannier having graduated, “Rice-a-Roni” was the only game in town.
That meant that the senior would have to face every lineup from every opponent two or three times in a game – and the hitters in the Three Rivers West as many as six or seven times throughout the season.
So how do you keep things fresh, and stay ahead of the hitters? An expanded repertoire, that’s how.
“I throw a dropball, riseball and changeup, so definitely changing up locations and changing speeds,” Rice said. “Going low, then going high, then throwing my change, jamming hitters on inside pitches and then going way outside. That made a great big difference going through lineups.”
One of Rice’s best friends, Lauren Vos, was on the receiving end of every pitch she threw this season. And after having caught Rice off and on for the past 8 years, Morrison’s senior catcher noticed there was a little something extra from her hurler this spring.
“She’s worked really hard, and she’s gotten a lot more consistent on hitting her spots over the past couple years; I noticed that a lot this year compared to sophomore year,” Vos said. “She hit her spots a lot better, she’s got incredible velocity and she keeps spin on the ball, and when you have placement and speed and movement, it’s hard for people to get ahold of – and when she was on with her riseball, no one could touch it.”
The duo worked well with assistant coach Mike Wiersema, who called the pitches from the dugout. He and Rice worked together to game-plan for opposing offenses, talking before games about what pitch to throw when and to whom, and also throughout games in the dugout between innings or during coaching visits to the circle.
“The greatest part about a team was chemistry, of course, and that’s what the three of us had,” Rice said. “Being on the same page is very important, especially since the pitcher and catcher are the most important players on the field. Me and Lauren are best friends, and Mike gets me and understands what I want to do. We really worked on that this year, being on the same page and communicating, and trust is a really important thing. We all had that in each other, and that plays a big part.”
Rice also had the ability to shake off a pitch call she didn’t like, although that didn’t happen too often. But when it did, she and Vos would usually figure it out.
“There were times when I’d get the signal, and I’d give it to her and she’d shake it off,” Vos said. “Then instead of taking the time to look over [to the dugout] and get another one, I’d just think ‘OK, I think I can figure it out here.’ I’d say it was pretty easy to make adjustments, just because we are so familiar, we trust each other, we know we have each other’s backs no matter what.”
If there was a theme for this year’s Morrison Fillies, that would be it: Having each other’s backs. That’s what Lauren Rice loved the most about her group of close-knit friends and teammates.
Many times, it might be hard for someone who left the mix for a year to come back and flourish. Resentment might rear its ugly head, or bad feelings might bubble to the surface. But being friends and teammates since fifth grade has a way of making things work out a little easier.
“It didn’t even feel like that,” Melton said. “It felt like we just kind of picked up where we were. We were with her every year since we were in fifth grade, playing on the Little League All-Stars, and it felt like we just picked up right where we left off our sophomore year. We had the same chemistry, it wasn’t awkward at all.
“You could definitely tell that she wanted to show us how much she missed us last year, and we missed her, too. She wanted to help send us all out with a bang, and she did exactly that.”
In her 23 years of coaching Morrison softball, Tammy Deter had never seen a team so tightly knit – especially off the field.
“It was never an issue for this group, because they’re such good friends,” Deter said. “They were always doing things together as a team, and spent a lot of time with each other, it was amazing. I remember I went to find them one day during lunch hour, and there they were sitting together. There were just no personality conflicts.
“One of the biggest things you strive for is team chemistry, and this team fought for each other with everything. They did what they had to do to help each other, to have each other’s backs. I don’t know if I ever heard a negative word at each other all season; it was always positive, always picking each other up and giving them confidence.”
The regular season was fun for Morrison, finishing with a 17-2 record (10-1 TRAC West). After splitting with Rockridge in the second and third games of the rain-interrupted season, the Fillies reeled off 16 straight wins before falling to Burlington Central in their final weekend tournament heading into the postseason
But that regular-season run was just a prelude to the playoffs, which Morrison had been eyeing all season long. After back-to-back losses to Stillman Valley in the sectional finals in 2015 & ’16, the Fillies outscored their five opponents through regional, sectionals and the supersectional 49-10, including a 9-6 win over Rockridge in a supersectional game that they trailed 4-0 after the first inning.
Morrison knew early on it had something special going.
“Even at practice before the season, we saw something special, then as the season went on, we got better and better,” Melton said. “We saw that finally there was something there, a spark, and we knew that we had to finish strong. It had always been our dream to do that, go out with a bang, and we were able to do that. That was pretty cool.”
“I think toward the beginning of the season, everything was kind of falling into place, I guess,” Vos added. “We were hitting well, we were playing defense well, we had Lauren pitching awesome. I just think that kind of clicked, ‘OK, we’re doing really well this season, I think we can go somewhere.’”
That somewhere was East Peoria, where this group of girls remembered Stralow’s older sister, Danielle, being part of the 2011 team that won the state championship. Ever since then, a title of their own was the shared dream of this octet of seniors who first got together in fifth grade.
“We’ve all grown up together, and we’ve cherished every moment we’ve had together,” Rice said. “We had great talent, of course, but the way we clicked on and off the field, we realized we had a chance to go to state. I think it really hit us at the beginning of senior year that this was our last year, and we really wanted the state title, so there was always an urgency that every practice, every game we played that we always had to give our best, because we knew what we were capable of.
“But at the end of the day, we’re all best friends, and it didn’t matter if we won or lost. But to make that run together, and finish with a win and third place, was so fun and so great.”
Now that she’s going to be on her own, Lauren Rice is looking for the same camaraderie – and success – at the next level. Having wanted to go to Missouri since she was little, and having committed to the Tigers so long ago, she’s now getting used to the idea that the future is finally here and now.
“It’s starting to hit me, actually, knowing that I’m leaving in a couple months,” Rice said. “I’m going to be having to practice every day, and I’m going to be playing against the best girls in the country. That’s kind of surreal, actually.”
She can still vividly recall coming into Morrison, already with an offer from and verbal commitment to Missouri, and anxiously awaiting what her Fillies softball career had in store for her. Now, Rice is ready to start the next chapter, where she’ll take college courses and play softball every day – and she can’t wait for that to start.
“It feels like it was just yesterday I was a freshman here,” Rice said. “People always say freshman to senior year does go fast, and that is a fact. It did go fast, but I cherished every moment of it – and now I know it will be the same way at Mizzou, so I’m going to work my hardest to do what I’m great at, and enjoy every moment of the next 4 years.”
FYI: Pitch all but 2 innings this season & led the Fillies to third place in the state in Class 2A. ... Led area with 22 wins while recording 1.18 ERA in 154 innings, with 217 strikeouts. ... Hit .500 with 7 doubles, 5 home runs, 36 RBIs and 25 runs, with an on-base percentage of .534 and a slugging percentage of .833. ... First-team all-state selection in Class 2A by Illinois Coaches Association, & a unanimous first-team pick in the Three Rivers West. ... Has played for Chicago Bandits & Firecrackers-Rico of Premier Girls Fastpitch. ... Will play at Missouri next season.