Lauren Rice remembers touring the softball facilities at Ohio State while on a trip with a youth team a few years ago.
At the time, it never crossed her mind that she might one day be pitching for the Buckeyes.
“I remember how big everything seemed, how I thought it would be great to be a part of something like that,’’ Rice said.
Today, she is.
And, this weekend the sophomore who prepped at Morrison will step into the circle for Ohio State when it completes its regular-season schedule with a three-game series at Iowa.
Rice will likely start either for the Buckeyes in Friday’s 5:30 p.m. game or in Saturday’s 1 p.m. match-up against the Hawkeyes, looking to build on her 15-4 start to the season.
“It’s been a good season for me,’’ Rice said. “I feel like I’ve been able to build off what I did last year as a freshman.’’
Rice joined the Ohio State program last fall after transferring from Missouri where she led the Tigers with 12 victories, seven complete games, a 3.25 ERA and 86 strikeouts over 146.2 innings a year ago.
A coaching change at Missouri prompted Rice to leave the Southeastern Conference program for the Big Ten.
She considered Arizona State, Georgia Tech and Illinois in addition to the Buckeyes.
“When I visited, I connected with the coaches here right away. It’s a couple of hours further away from home than I was at Mizzou, but I felt comfortable,’’ Rice said.
“My visit went great and a couple of hours after I left, I called coach Kelly (Kovach Schoenly, the Buckeyes’ head coach) and told her that this is where I wanted to be.’’
The move has provided Rice with an opportunity to grow as a pitcher.
She still throws her drop and rise pitches, staples of her arsenal since dominating at the prep level for Morrison and while playing for the Quad-City Firebirds and Chicago Beverly Bandits.
This season, she has worked to develop a four-seam split change-up, a pitch she blends with her other pitches with increasing frequency.
“I’m mixing things up a little more, giving hitters something else to think about and since really working on it last fall, I’ve made a lot of progress with it,’’ Rice said. “I still have my drop and my rise, but my change-up is playing a bigger role in everything.’’
That has helped Rice contribute to the Buckeyes’ 32-14 start as a team.
Heading into the final weekend of Big Ten play, Ohio State is 15-5 in the conference and is fourth in the standings.
Rice has started 17 of her 25 appearances for the Buckeyes, posting a 2.55 ERA over 99 innings of work while striking out 38 batters.
She is building on what she learned a year ago at Missouri as she faces Big Ten competition for the first time.
“I feel like I’ve matured a bit. The SEC was great competition every night out and the Big Ten, there are great hitters in this conference, too,’’ Rice said.
“I learned from my freshman year about what it took to compete at this level and I’m using that now as a sophomore. You have to be ready to compete against every hitter.’’
Rice said she has worked to do a better job of keeping hitters off balance, learning how to change the eye level of hitters more frequently with a more consistent blend of pitches.
“I’m learning how to use my pitches to my advantage and make the most of them,’’ Rice said. “The coaches have done a good job of working with me to help me improve and as a team, things are really coming together.’’
Rice, majoring in human development and family science at Ohio State, looks forward to getting the chance to play at Iowa this weekend.
Given the proximity of the Hawkeyes’ Pearl Field to her hometown, it’s as close to a home game as she will get.
“I’m excited about coming out to Iowa City. I love the support I get from my family,’’ Rice said. “They’ve been to every single home game we’ve played and having a chance to play close to home and see them and some friends, it’s going to be fun.’’
It remains a business trip, however.
“Offense, defense and pitching, we’re playing our best right now and we want to keep that rolling,’’ Rice said. "The (Big Ten) tourney is next week and we want to be at our best.''