Cat Scratches Feature: Rice hopes to complete accomplished career with championship

Sept. 2, 2009

Barry Rice heard all the excuses and the outrage. He was even a part of it.

After dealing with the devastating disappointment his freshman season, one in which the men's soccer team went 14-5-2, ranked No. 13 at season's end, yet failed to make the NCAA Tournament, Rice couldn't imagine the Cats getting snubbed again.

Only it did last season in an unbelievable nightmarish case of déjà vu. The Cats appeared to be a lock for the tournament when they lost on penalty kicks to No. 7 Tulsa in the Conference USA Tournament title game, but a No. 21 ranking and a school-record 10-match unbeaten streak inexplicably weren't enough. When the selection show rolled around at the end of the year, the Cats found themselves once again without an invitation to the Big Dance.

It was one of those feelings Rice only wanted to feel once in his entire life. To have it happen twice in three years was unbearable.

“When the NCAA show came up and I saw that weren't in, I felt like I died,” Rice said. “It was one of the worst feelings in my life. I thought we started to do something really special over the last year and I really wanted to keep going. It was painful.”

The window of opportunity for Rice's team to do something special is closing. Entering his senior season, Rice and his seven senior teammates have one more chance to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their UK careers.

“I don't want to be remembered as another Kentucky team that couldn't get over the hump that makes excuses about why we didn't get in,” said the 5-foot-11, 180-pound defender.

Valid complaint or not, there are no excuses anymore, Rice said.

“The bottom line is we have to win,” Rice said. “We have to take everything out of the NCAA committee's hands. We have to win every game and make sure we do well in every game, especially in conference.”

Every game? Well, maybe not every game, but after doing a statistical analysis during the offseason, head coach Ian Collins agreed that they'll have win most and has put a premium on winning the C-USA Tournament to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

The good news is the Cats will be one of the favorites to win the championship this year with a solid group of returners that includes Rice, goalkeeper Dan Williams and midfielder Jason Griffiths, who Collins called the engine of the team.

But no one has been more individually touted than Rice during their careers at UK. The Parma, Ohio, native's list of individual accolades is long and accomplished, making him arguably the best men's soccer player to ever put on a UK uniform.

The short version of his résumé: He's the only the only player in school history to win C-USA Defensive Player of the Year honors in back-to back seasons, the third All-American in program annals, a two-time C-USA first-team honoree and a 2009 preseason first-team All-America selection.

If you've watched Rice on the field, it's easy to see why. The senior co-captain is supremely athletic, the best defender on the field and he wins just about every 50-50 ball. Since UK started recording headers won vs. headers lost in 2008, Rice has won an astounding 189-of-218 contested head attempts on the year, which comes out to an 87-percent clip.

“Some guys when they get to 17 or 18 in all sports, they think they've made it and they stop working. They rely on what they've done in the past. Barry hasn't done that,” Collins said. “He's worked hard at his game and worked hard to improve his game, and I think that's noticeable.”

Rice's leadership might be the most undervalued but most important part of his game. As solid on the field as he is outspoken off of it – Rice admitted that he won't hesitate to talk to a player or fire up the team if the situation calls for it – he's been the quintessential coach's player.

When Collins' team was desecrated by injuries in 2007, Rice not only became UK's defender, he became the team's top scorer as well. That year, Rice led the team in minutes (1,642), goals (seven), points (15) and game-winning goals (three).

Rice's leadership has only blossomed since.

“He's not a moody kind of guy. You know what you get with him and that rubs off on our younger players,” Collins said. “Our guys are really great with each other. There is no class separation or separation of players of who plays or who doesn't play, and I think that starts at the top within the player hierarchy. If your best players are selfish and moody and prima donnas, that sets a tone for everyone else. We're fortunate that we don't have that here at all.”

But there is a glaring void in Rice's storied UK career. It might be hard to believe with everything Rice has done, but he's never tasted postseason play.

“He's got to lead the team to something great,” Collins said. “Between him, Dan Williams and Jason Griffiths, who I think are all terrific players, they have to lead the team to something spectacular. That's what missing. They don't have that on their résumés – any of them. They need to do something that maybe something nobody has ever done here before.”

The consummate team player, Rice said he would trade all the individual awards to take UK to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.

“All the individual accolades are great but none of them win a conference championship or a national championship,” Rice said. “I could go this entire year and not win one individual accolade if we win a conference championship and make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. It would be more than a successful year for me.”