Jeffrey Rice wasn't sure he would ever be in this position.
Framed by two bright orange Mercer University caps and surrounded by family and friends in the Evans High School media center May 11, the senior signed his intent to play Division I baseball.
At this time last year, Rice was running gingerly up the first base line in the state playoffs, soon to find out he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee a second time.
Rice said he spoke with his parents and his coaches, who told him to stay positive. If he was meant to play college baseball, they said, it would work out for him.
"That's what I did," Rice said. "I worked my butt off and got back to where I could play. Fortunately, Mercer came along and liked what they saw."
When he returned in time to play his senior season, Rice had been displaced. Second baseman Kevin Caughman had moved into Rice's slot at shortstop.
Rice was flipped to second, where there would be less potential problems for his knee.
"We felt like that was a good move in general to take some pressure off him and let him worry about the offensive side of things," Evans coach Ricky Beale said.
The infielders had little problem with the change. Caughman and Rice were members of the Knights' starting infield the past three years and already had the communication down.
"It's been a good change for us," Rice said. "Something clicked."
Rice was batting .456 entering the Knights' second-round playoff series with Glynn Academy and hasn't experienced any of the problems he faced at the close of last season.
He first tore his ACL playing football as a junior. From everything Rice had heard about ACL injuries, he wasn't optimistic.
But surgery was successful -- doctors repaired the knee with a graft from Rice's hamstring -- and his recovery was fast. He was cleared to play baseball four months later.
When the graft popped during the region playoffs, the original diagnosis was a strained MCL. But after Rice missed two region playoff games and limped through the state playoffs, arthroscopic surgery showed the real damage.
Rice allowed himself more time to recover this time, scrapping the idea of playing football his senior season.
"It took me longer to get back," Rice said. "But I also had the amount of time that I needed instead of trying to push myself to the level I needed in four months."
And so Rice sat at the table at Evans last week, inking his college future with Mercer. He also received an offer from Augusta State the day before visiting Mercer, but he said Mercer made him feel at home.
The Bears' infield next season resembles the Knights' current mold. Two seniors will be anchoring short and second for Mercer when Rice enters as a freshman. Coaches told Rice to watch and learn his first season, and that if all goes as planned, he could be starting at shortstop as a sophomore.
"I think it's a great situation for him," Beale said. "He's going to get to play D-I baseball for four years."
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.