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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Oregon pitcher excels despite small-town roots

Colville's Melissa Rice has 38 wins at Oregon in the last two seasons. University of Oregon
 (Geoff Thurner University of Oregon / The Spokesman-Review)

In 2005, Spokane-area high school softball teams produced more than their share of quality pitchers.

Six current or soon-to-be collegiate hurlers from the Greater Spokane League that year helped teams to state tournaments.

The best to date from the class of 2005 is Melissa Rice, who sold herself to the University of Oregon from relative anonymity in Colville, was thrown immediately into the Pac-10 Conference fire and has carved out a solid career.

Rice is one of four Washington-area pitchers still throwing as they enter their senior seasons. During three years at Oregon, she’s gone 46-33 in 455 innings with a composite 2.64 earned run average in the toughest softball conference in the nation.

“We were hoping to bring her on a little slower and expose her easier her freshman year, but between injuries and academic issues with our pitching she was our only pitcher for several weeks,” said Oregon coach Kathy Arendsen. “She was such a trooper to do that and being dipped into the fire so quickly made her more resilient.”

Rice flew up from Eugene on Tuesday to be part of the Spokane Area All-Stars who will face the USA National Team in a nine-inning exhibition game Thursday at Franklin Park. The team is nearing the end of a four-month barnstorming tour as it prepares for next month’s Olympic Games in Beijing.

“When I was asked to play I thought, ‘This is incredible,’ ” said Rice in a telephone interview. “When I was in high school I went to the game and watched. I went with my dad, sat behind the cage and watched Cat (Osterman) and Jennie (Finch) throw. My jaw dropped to the floor.”

Thursday she’ll find herself in the game and on the mound opposing them.

Arendsen said that Rice’s success story at Oregon is that of a person who persisted to fulfill a dream.

“I’ve got to give the Rice family credit,” she said. “They found us, recruited us and got us interested. Her relentless drive to get here said a lot to me.”

Rice had done what all aspiring collegiate softball players do. Her primary pitching coach was her father, Mark, who had played fastpitch out of college. But she attended summer camps, including Oregon’s, to improve.

Three times Colville qualified for state with her on the mound, twice finishing among the Class 2A top six. The second, during her senior year, came despite an injured her arm later diagnosed as tendinitis. It healed with rest.

She figured she was ticketed to play at the community college level and in an April 2005 story in The Spokesman-Review revealed the family tried to opt out of an Oregon camp before her senior year and have her money returned.

The refund deadline had passed, so Rice went to the camp and caught the eye of the Ducks’ coaching staff. Arendsen said there were some concerns because she was pitching on a lower-level summer team.

“We wondered if she’d be able to make the adjustment. Was she ready?” Arendsen said.

They hooked her up with the Washington LadyHawks and became convinced when Rice pitched well against a team from California in a national Gold level tournament.

“It never crossed my mind until they offered a scholarship,” Rice said of playing in the Pac-10. “That opened my mind that this was a possibility.”

She thought she’d redshirt, but circumstance thrust her into the Ducks’ lineup as a freshman and she went 8-5.

“At times my freshman year I was scared,” Rice said. “It was a new experience for me and I didn’t know what to expect.”

Adding a drop ball to her repertoire and becoming stronger enabled Rice to win 21 games as a sophomore. This year she was 17-14 with a career-best 2.31 ERA.

The Ducks made back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament (including Rice’s 3-0 NCAA tourney win this year over Arkansas, where another Area All-Star, North Central’s Kelsie Vallies, is headed). There have been rocky times she admitted, but overall the experience at Oregon has been amazing.

“She doesn’t get bothered easily and has given us everything she had,” Arendsen said. “It’s been cool to see her go after it.”

As a senior, Rice will mentor Shadle Park’s Samantha Skillingstad, who joins the Ducks next year and is also a pitcher for the Area All-Stars against the Olympians.

“I’ve never seen her throw, but my parents live in Spokane now and went to her games,” Rice said. “My dad is her No. 1 fan.”

Rice’s advice to Skillingstad is to be open to suggestions from teammates who have played the game longer and play the game to the fullest.

Arendsen said making comparisons between the two pitchers is difficult because Rice came from a small school and Skillingstad from successful big school and powerhouse club programs.

“Their style is different, also their experience,” Arendsen said. “(Sam’s) had more publicity by far. Melissa was an unknown. People would ask, ‘Where’d she come from and how did we miss her?’ They’re both incredible young women. My hope is Sam helps send Melissa off with an amazing senior year.”

Fans get to watch both on Thursday, among the four pitchers who were throwing here back in 2005 and will be taking on the Olympians.

“I’ve played against Monica Abbott and Caitlin Lowe,” Rice said. “I’m really excited and pretty nervous, but I’ll just give it my best and hopefully that’s enough.”