The tension inside Clemson's Riggs Field was knee-buckling, stomach-churning and cold-sweat-inducing. As players, coaches and fans nervously studied the playing field at Texas A&M's NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 contest against SEC foe Ole Miss, it was clear the game's crucial moment had arrived.
The two squads remained deadlocked after 90 minutes of regulation, two overtime periods and five rounds of penalty kicks. The pressure intensified as the shootout advanced to sudden death, as everyone on the field and in the stands new the fate of both teams could be decided in an instant.
In the middle of the madness stood Texas A&M goalkeeper Danielle Rice. A junior at the time of the Nov. 22, 2015 contest, Rice composed herself and took her position on the goal line. Twelve short yards away, Ole Miss forward Gretchen Harknett placed the ball on the penalty spot, took a few steps backward and awaited the signal from the referee to take her shot. A goal would shift all the pressure to the Aggies' next kicker, while a save would put A&M firmly in the driver's seat.
Considering Rice was playing in just her seventh game for the Aggies, the moment could have easily been judged as being too big if she faltered. Rice crouched into position and focused her eyes intently on the play at hand. If she could have paused time, her thoughts would have likely flickered to a text message she received several weeks prior.
The message was from Dallas-based goalkeeper coach Joe Waggoner, with whom Rice has worked since she was 14 years old. The message, sent on Sept. 27, is one of dozens from Waggoner that Rice has saved on her phone over the years. The text was sent in the middle of the season, a full month before Rice saw the field. In fact, for much of the year, Rice had been third on the Aggies' depth chart and seemed to be destined for a redshirt season.
"You will need a strong attitude and mentality WHEN you are called on, so prepare yourself for that and that alone! Nothing else right now matters except your mentality and your effort."
And now that Rice would be one of the factors that would either end her team's season or help push it into the Elite Eight, Waggoner's text had become perfectly prophetic.
Right at Home
Danielle Rice (shown at far left in the photo below) transferred to A&M after the 2014 season. One of her goals for transferring was to receive a chance to play in the postseason, and she had the chance to do just that at the end of 2015. Rice didn't play until the end of the regular season but helped the Aggies advance to the SEC finals as well as the NCAA Elite 8.
As Harknett approached the ball and laced a low shot toward the left side of the goal, Rice dove hard to her right, extending her hands to where she thought the shot was headed. As the well-struck ball collided with her hands and ricocheted away from goal, A&M's players and fans erupted in euphoria.
Seconds later, teammate Sarah Shaw ripped her penalty attempt into the back of the net to complete the fairy tale moment and send A&M to its sixth Elite Eight.
"(Waggoner) told me on the very first day we met that I could become an elite goalkeeper, and he hasn't stopped telling me that since," recalled Rice, who regularly goes through her phone to refer to Waggoner's uplifting text messages. "One of the most important aspects of being a goalkeeper is the mental aspect of the game...and that is where he taught me the biggest lessons. My job is very clearly defined; I either did my job (and stopped the ball), or I didn't."
She certainly completed her task against Ole Miss.
"She was a hero," said A&M coach G Guerrieri. "You could see Dani was excited, but I think as much as anything it was kind of gratification for her that waiting had paid off. There are a lot of people who can be bitter about waiting, but she doesn't have that type of attitude. Looking back on it now, maybe she thought (sitting out much of the season) was a good thing because she had a chance to improve in practice every day so that when her time came, she was ready for it and helped us win."
Indeed, Rice's long wait for playing time did pay off. It was also a moment she had dreamed about since making the decision to transfer to A&M from Creighton following the 2014 season.
Despite starring for the Bluejays as a freshman and sophomore, Rice never saw her team advance to postseason play in either the Big East Tournament or NCAA Tournament. As a result, it became clear that her goal of playing professionally would only come to fruition if she moved to a program that would factor into the national title race.
Such a decision would not come without significant risk. Rice was on a full scholarship at Creighton, a private Jesuit school in Omaha, Neb., but she would have to forego that if she planned to transfer. The Forney, Texas, native knew that it would be a stretch to find a prominent school willing to dole out valuable scholarship dollars on a transfer goalkeeper, but Rice received interest from two of the top soccer programs in the south: Texas A&M and Florida.
Rice, who was familiar with several players on the A&M roster from her days in club soccer, eventually chose the Aggies.
"The opportunity to come here was a godsend," Rice said. "It was all too perfect."
Unfortunately for Rice, earning playing time wasn't nearly as simple.
With a long tradition of producing excellent goalkeepers, Guerrieri routinely has plenty of star power waiting in the wings. While Jordan Day graduated in 2014 after helping lead the Aggies to the Final Four, talented keepers Taylor Saucier and Mia Hummel were also on campus and landed ahead of Rice on the depth chart.
However, as the youngest of five children, Rice has always found a way to fight for attention.
"You do it by busting your butt in the weight room, running extra sprints and going the extra mile for your teammates," Rice said. "I wanted to make sure they knew I loved and supported them in whatever they needed, and then (I wanted) to show them every day on the soccer field that I am consistent and somebody they can depend on. I wanted to compete."
Penalty Kick Heroics
Rice has become one of the nation's top goalies against penalty kicks. The save pictured at left came in sudden death of A&M's Sweet 16 shootout against SEC rival Ole Miss and set the stage for Sarah Shaw's game-winner. In total, Rice has saved an astounding half of the penalty kicks she has defended during her time at A&M.
Rice did just that as the Aggies began fall workouts prior to 2015, but a thumb injury and some ongoing paperwork issues from transferring weighed on her as the season began. Saucier eventually won the starting job and started the first 11 games of the season. After an injury sidelined Saucier, Hummel started the next eight games.
As the calendar turned to late October and the final game of the regular season, the Aggies traveled to first-place Missouri. A win by the Tigers would clinch the SEC title for Mizzou, and with the match tied at 1-1 late in the second half, Guerrieri pointed down the bench to Rice. She knew that entering the match would count as an entire year of eligibility, but she jumped at the opportunity.
Missouri peppered the Aggie goalkeepers with 10 shots that night, but Rice turned back all four she faced in 41 minutes of regulation and overtime. Missouri controlled the action in OT and even had a header go off the post in the 102nd minute. Less than two minutes later, the Tigers earned a penalty kick that would have all but iced both the game and a conference title.
Watching in the stands, Randy and Wendy Rice, Danielle's parents, had a sinking feeling in their stomachs.
"My first thought was 'oh no,'" recalled Randy Rice. "She has dreamed about getting on the field and what happens? She has to defend a penalty kick. That's usually not what you want to happen in your first game with everybody watching."
The Rice's fear turned quickly to jubilation, however, as their daughter recorded a diving save on the penalty attempt to preserve the tie game and provide a big boost of momentum as the Aggies entered the postseason.
"It was phenomenal," Randy Rice said. "It was every dream we ever had. You lay down at night and wish for the best things for your kids and to see her start rolling into games and having the success she did, even saving those penalty kicks (against Missouri and in the Sweet 16 against Ole Miss)...wow. She was fulfilling every dream. I don't know how to put it into words, but it brought tears."
Rice followed her debut with three postseason shutouts, an appearance in the SEC Tournament finals and a flawless performance against perennial power North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Rice has continued to shine in 2016, earning starts in each of the team's first six games. In those contests, she played all 540 minutes and allowed just three goals for an SEC-best 0.50 goals against average. Considering two of A&M's games came against Florida State and UCLA, teams that have won two of the last three national titles and are currently ranked in the top 10, her numbers are exceptional.
Rice also recorded another penalty save, stonewalling a UCLA attempt late in the second half to keep the Aggies alive in a one-goal contest. Thus far in her short A&M career, Rice has saved an astounding four out of eight penalty shots she has faced.
"She works her tail off," Guerrieri said. "She is a great person and is someone who is very competitive and still very kind to her teammates. She has done a great job of winning over her teammates through her hard work. She puts us in a position to win every game because of her strength and athleticism."
Meanwhile, Rice has become a proud Aggie and even traveled to San Antonio this summer to speak on behalf of the soccer team to donors at the annual 12th Man Foundation Athletic Ambassadors Summer Meeting. There, she gained a new appreciation for the type of support that is made available to A&M student-athletes.
"I get teary-eyed talking about it, but the support from our fans (and donors) is what gave me a scholarship to play here," Rice said. "That was my biggest goal and dream. This is the highest level of women's soccer that you can get to at the college level. To have this school, this fanbase and see these wonderful people who support you so much because you're working so hard for their school, it's unreal.
"I'm so deeply thankful because that's what gave me the opportunity to come here, and I feel like I'm someone who truly recognizes how completely blessed I am, down to the core, to be here. Other places aren't like this place."
To those who support student-athletes by giving, I want to say thanks and gig 'em.
Without them, many young people who aren't financially stable or can't provide an education for themselves have a great opportunity. It makes A&M a better place."