Jeff Rice was given plenty of reason to doubt himself entering the baseball season.
Because he had torn up his knee a second time, he had spent the previous summer not showcasing his talent but laying in bed doing rehabilitation exercises for his left leg.
Surgery in June 2008 sidelined him for the summer -- one of the most important times for a high school player looking to play in college -- and also caused him to miss his senior year of football.
While the injury prevented him from doing just about everything else, it couldn't derail his final season of high school baseball -- not even when an early season slump dropped him to seventh in the team's batting order.
A late-season boost to the second spot in the order, when Rice hit in front of friend and longtime teammate Kevin Caughman, turned his season around, Rice said. For leading the Knights to the Class AAAA state quarterfinals, Rice is The Columbia County New-Times All-County Baseball Player of the Year.
He hit .424, scored 32 times, stole 14 bases and drove in 33 runs -- leading the Knights in every category. (He shared the batting crown with Caughman and scored the same number of times as Tevin Nelson.) What's more, he made only two errors in 31 games at second base.
"It was a great year, because of the group of guys we had leading this team," said Rice, the Region 3-AAAA player of the year who earned a scholarship to play at Mercer.
Rice sat down with his parents last May with a decision to make: have surgery on his knee or play through the pain during the summer. They chose to have surgery with an eye toward a strong senior season.
"I really think that helped me as far as coming back," Rice said. "It did a lot for me."
Early on, Rice struggled. He said he wasn't taking his usual approach to the plate.
Evans coach Ricky Beale dropped him from third in the order to seventh. Then, during a 7-1 win over Harlem on April 1, Rice moved to second. Rice said teams were more eager to pitch to him because they didn't want to put anyone on base in front of Caughman.
Rice went 3-for-3 against Harlem, the start of a strong closing run for him and the team. Evans won 15 of its next 17 games, including a 9-3 victory over Greenbrier that earned the Knights a rare sweep of the Wolfpack.
"Kevin is one of the best hitters in the area, if not the best, so I was able to see more pitches," Rice said. "That's how it worked out."
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