Some four years ago, Coach Sarah Jurewicz was debating whether to ask Amber Rice — who she described as a “scrawny” 5-foot-7 guard at Southeastern High School — to join her women’s basketball program at Wittenberg.
It was evident the kid could really shoot the ball, but she needed to develop in several other areas and that would mean she’d have to play on the Tigers’ junior varsity team her first season.
“Sometimes at our level you roll the dice,” Jurewicz said. “You take a kid that has one good quality and hope they embrace what you challenge them with. The unknown thing is their work ethic. Will they be willing to work?’”
Well, four seasons later, here’s how Amber Rice, now a Wittenberg senior, has answered the work ethic question:
- She has a job working at the circulation desk of the Thomas Library on campus.
- For one of her internships, she’s working in the Alzheimer’s unit at the Ohio Masonic Home in Springfield. Prior to that, she worked with troubled children at the Osterlen Services For Youth center. And she’s about to begin another internship at the On-The-Rise program, where she’ll work in a farm setting with at-risk kids from Clark County.
- She cleans people’s homes as a side job.
- She’s doing well in the classroom and will graduate this spring with a psychology degree.
- On the basketball court she has the same roll-up-your-sleeves approach, Jurewicz said: “She’s on the floor two hours before a game and gets up 200 shots before the rest of her teammates even join her for warm-ups.”
Well, there was one exception to that rule this season.
On Jan. 11, when the Tigers hosted Wooster at Pam Evans Smith Arena, she showed up just before tip-off.
- That’s because she’s also serving in an Ohio Army National Guard unit in Lima and had training that weekend. She got a release a couple of hours before the game, rushed to Springfield and took the court in time to score a school-record 36 points in a win over the Fighting Scots.
Going into today’s final game of the regular season (2 p.m. at home against Oberlin), she will be one of three seniors honored on Senior Recognition Day.
She leads the Tigers in scoring (16.6 points per game), rebounds (5.2) and steals. She’s second in assists. Her 43.4-percent accuracy from 3-point range is second in the North Coast Athletic Conference and 17th in the nation at the NCAA Division III level. Her average of 2.7 three-pointers made per game leads the conference and is 30th in the nation.
- And, oh yeah, when the basketball season ends, she’s going to join the Wittenberg rugby team.
These days, instead of work ethic speculation, Jurewicz has another question for Rice.
“I’m like, ‘Do you have more hours in the day than me?’ ” the coach said with a smile. “Man, she’s impressive.”
Mom a role model
Here’s a story from Stephanie Alfrey, Amber’s mom:
“One Easter Sunday — she was probably 4 years old — she cried and cried until I took her new Easter dress off her. She wanted nothing to do with it. I never bought her another dress, except for prom, and I could tell she wasn’t comfortable in that one either.”
One thing Amber didn’t balk at was the portable bank board and hoop her mom got her for the driveway of their home when they lived in South Charleston.
“She’d be out there playing basketball all day long,” said Alfrey, who began to laugh. “The neighbors used to get upset with her. They’d yell out, ‘OK, Amber, it’s time to go to bed. It’s night time.’”
Amber said she and her older sister, Misty, were raised primarily by their mom, who taught them their work ethic:
“We didn’t always have it easy — we had our struggles — but my mom showed me how to work hard and I think that’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Alfrey said she always had a couple of jobs when her daughters were growing up: “I worked at Community hospital and I always had a side job cleaning houses. I’d come home and, even when the girls were little, I made them come with me and help.
“When they got into high school, I went back to college and got my associate’s degree and now I work as a respiratory therapist at the hospital.”
At Southeastern, Amber played four sports but was especially known for basketball, where she won All-Ohio Heritage Conference (OHC) honors two seasons in a row and was the team MVP her senior year.
She had good grades — she was an OHC Scholar-Athlete three years straight — but drew little interest from college coaches.
“I remember senior year I was in the school library looking up colleges and I asked our librarian, ‘You think I could play basketball in college?’ ” she said. “I was seriously questioning it. I didn’t think I was up to that level.”
She said she sent out only one resume — to Wittenberg — and, luckily, Jurewicz came to watch her play.
“Coach J was honest with me,” Amber said. “She told me I wasn’t mentally or physically ready for the pace of varsity-level basketball in college — that I needed to get stronger and be more consistent — so I’d have to start out on JV. But she said I had a lot of potential and that gave me confidence.”
That said, it wasn’t easy for her athletically at first and financially ever.
As a Division III school, Wittenberg — which Jurewicz said costs about $48,000 a year — gives no athletic scholarships. Amber was able to get some academic and grant money and she footed the rest of the bill working her jobs and taking out loans.
But by the end of her sophomore year, the financial situation was becoming untenable and Jurewicz, who Amber’s mom said has been her daughter’s “light through all this,” offered some sobering advice.
“She didn’t have the means to pay out of pocket and after her second year we sat down with her and said this is what the projection will look like if you keep taking out this much in loans,” the coach said. “You will have too much debt. And she was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve got to find another option here.’ ”
When the rest of the team took a basketball trip to Italy that summer, Amber stayed home to work. “We had to raise a couple thousand dollars to go on the trip and I didn’t have it,” she said.
She feared she would have to transfer and that prospect “was just devastating,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave Wittenberg.”
In April 2012, Amber found a solution like no other player Jurewicz has had in her 14 years as a college coach, including the past seven as the Wittenberg head coach:
Amber joined the National Guard.
Her commitment goes until 2020, but while in college she said she’s getting $9,000 a year from the Army toward her education.
The trick has been balancing the demands of the Guard with those of school and basketball and her other jobs. When she went off for four months of basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, she returned to Wittenberg a month after classes began in 2012 and had to make up all the academic work she missed.
By her junior year — weighing some 20 pounds more than she did in high school and feeling the fittest of her life — she became a starter and soon blossomed on the court.
Her nose-to-the grindstone emergence has won her a loyal following, including fans like Barb and Larry Shank, a Springfield couple who began tracking her when she played at Southeastern.
“She’s such a good player, but even more impressive is the hard work she’s put in to get herself through school,” Barb said. “She’s got a lot of self-determination, a lot of drive other students don’t have. She just handles so many things at once, it’s pretty astounding
“And yet she takes time to send us the nicest letters, just thanking us for being in the stands and watching her play. We just think she’s a wonderful kid. She’s like an adoptive daughter to us.”
The Shanks will be in the stands Saturday. So will several of Amber’s family members, including her dad, Wallace Rice, and her grandmother, Martha Hernstein, who has compiled three massive scrapbooks containing every photo and newspaper clipping of her since grade school.
Amber will be accompanied onto the court by her mom, her sister and her 5-year-old niece, Keiley.
Jurewicz, who had a hall-of-fame playing career herself at Wittenberg and remains the women’s all-time career scorer (1,297 points), admitted she will be especially moved by the moment:
“There’s something about this industry, this lifestyle, you know kids are going to cycle through and you try to make sure you’re mentally and emotionally ready for it. But when you get a special one like her, you can’t help but feel a little sad when you know it’s about to end.
“Actually, there have been a couple of moments recently where I’ve stopped and just watched her practice and kind of taken it all in. She’s taken such a unique path that other players at this level never do and yet the thing that makes her special is that she’s never once looked at herself as special.
“She’s just kept a steely disposition and done what she needs to do, even if that’s meant getting up at 7 a.m. and staying at it all day until 11 p.m. That’s what hits me the most. I realize there’s not going to be another Amber coming around here tomorrow. She is the quintessential example of perseverance and overcoming the odds.
“… And she’s done it all with hard work.”