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Megan Rice was always just “one opportunity away” from her breakout 2023

HERMOSA BEACH, California — It was a hypothetical at first. There was only a space of four days between the AVP Denver Tour Series and the Hermosa Pro Series this past July. Savvy Simo and Toni Rodriguez, after a finals run in Denver, opted to take the ensuing Monday and Tuesday off. A light practice Wednesday also finished early, as Rodriguez nursed a perpetually sore knee. Simo called Josh Glazebrook, the AVP’s Senior Vice President and the man everyone calls when they have a question, request, or problem.

“If I need to make an injury sub,” she asked, “when would I need to do that?”

“Right now.”

“Can you give me an hour, please?”

An hour was given.

Simo had initially only called “on a hypothetical,” she said. Now she needed to make a decision. Their schedule over the ensuing weeks was packed: Challenges in Portugal and Canada, potentially an Elite16 in Montreal, capped by the Atlanta Gold Series, one of the most important events of the season.

“Every single event was more important than Hermosa. They were all more important to us and our goals,” Simo said. “[Rodriguez] had to make the tough decision to not play, which was not easy. It’s Hermosa! I’m sitting there, ‘Who’s even in town? Who’s even here?’”

Anyone not in Hermosa was either in Gstaad for an Elite16 or Wisconsin for the Waupaca Tour Series. It left Simo in a desperate situation. Her boyfriend, Evan Cory, had an idea: What about Megan Rice?

How had Simo not thought of that?

Rice, a 24-year-old rookie, had opted not to travel to Waupaca. It’s an expensive trip, and there hadn’t been anyone she thought she could win with, especially after falling in the Denver qualifier just a few days prior. Her birthday, July 4, was also that weekend.

“I was just going to be home for my birthday,” she said, “watch AVP Hermosa, it’ll be great.”

When Simo called, asking for a last-minute replacement, it was a non-decision: “Yeah I want to play!”

Simo made the call to Glazebrook.

AVP Hermosa had a new 13 seed.

Megan Rice-AVP Hermosa
Megan Rice in scramble mode/Mark Rigney photo

“Just an opportunity away” 

At first blush, that team would have been easy to peg as a dream draw for anyone in their path. Here was a pair who had exactly one light serve-and-pass between them and zero competition reps. Rice was playing in just the fifth AVP of her career, and her first true main draw. She’d been knocked out in qualifiers in New Orleans, Huntington Beach, and Denver, and bowed out in the first round of the Virginia Beach Tour Series. She’d competed on the beach briefly at LMU but had a stop-start career mixed with injuries and a pandemic. Then she took a year off.

“I was pretty burned out because I was doing indoor and beach at the same time, so my off-season was the two weeks in between seasons. Even though everyone was like ‘You should play, you should play!’ I was like ‘No, I’m going to do this on my own time. If I feel like, after taking a summer off and I still want to play I know it’ll be the right timing.’ I’m glad I did,” Rice said. “In the late fall when I was getting the itch to play again I was like ‘OK, I’m out of shape and it’ll be really hard but that means I want to play and really want to do it.’”

Only a handful of people, then, had a legitimate understanding of just how good Megan Rice was at volleyball.

Simo was one of them.

She had competed for a loaded Torrey Pines High School team that would win three straight Palomar League titles and back-to-back CIF championships. Why wasn’t there a third?

In short: Megan Rice.

“Megan wrecked me in high school,” Simo said of Rice, who was a year younger and a standout outside hitter for Redondo Union. “My team is legit. Megan comes in whatever round of state. We had won our league, won CIF, we’re going to win state. We had a solid lineup. Then Megan single-handedly beat us. Wrecked us. It was the most devastating loss to this day. Megan ended my high school career. Never forget.”

It’s a good thing she didn’t. Their paths would mix here and again, both indoor and on the beach: Simo as an outside for UCLA, Rice as an outside for Santa Barbara and then LMU, Simo as a court one talent for the Bruins, Rice as a court one blocker for the Lions. Even though Simo went 5-0 against Rice in college, that memory of Rice racking up kill after kill never left Simo.

Now, as a team in one of the most historic AVP locations, it was time to wreck someone else. Rice, despite the lack of results in her first four tournaments, “felt like I was right there, that it was just an opportunity away to compete with some of these good main draw teams,” she said.

She made the most of her opportunity.

Down went Lili and Larissa Maestrini, a 21-15, 21-15 win that was stunning in its ease. Down went Macy Jerger and Megan Rice, the champs from AVP Virginia Beach.

“After that,” Simo said, “the flood gates just opened.”

They swept Brook Bauer and Katie Horton in the quarterfinals, then swept Lexy Denaburg and Carly Kan in the semifinals. In a blink, Megan Rice, in her first Pro Series main draw, 10 days after being eliminated in the qualifier of a Tour Series, was in the finals of AVP Hermosa Beach.

“It didn’t really shift my perspective,” she said of finishing second in her first career main draw. “It felt validating that I’m not being delusional, that I am right there. I was practicing against these teams I want to be competing against, and I was beating them in practice, which I know isn’t competition, but it still felt like ‘Am I crazy? I’m right there.’ I had been back into practicing and into lifting and I got a full-time trainer. When you invest the time and the money, you really want to see the results.”

Megan Rice-Corinne Quiggle-AVP Hermosa
Megan Rice, left, and Corinne Quiggle/Rick Atwood photo

“It’s been a crazy summer”

It was only the beginning. When Rice had made the decision, in the fall of 2022, to begin competing again on the beach, she “did so at a weird time,” she said. “So many people were partnered up.”

Conversations with Emily Day stalled when Day announced she was pregnant. She bounced around, playing with whomever was available and talented: Kahlee York in New Orleans and Huntington Beach, Denaburg for Denver, Simo for the serendipitous Hermosa Beach. After a finals run in which she hit .408 (ninth for the tournament), blocked 17 attacks (third), aced six serves (seventh), and hit only 16 errors in 130 attempts, Rice was suddenly thrust atop every player’s list as a blocker they needed to play with.

When Betsi Flint needed a sub for Julia Scoles for AVP Atlanta, Rice was an easy choice.

“She’s just bought in now,” said Flint, who also coached Rice at LMU. “She has a big arm, has a great serve, is great at problem solving, and that’s what you need at a high level.”

In Rice, not only did she get a talented sub, she also got a player who is as close a comp to Scoles as there is on the AVP. Here are two physical, bruising players, with swings that don’t often get dug, who serve well and provide a substantial wall at the net for Flint. It is impossible to say what might have happened had they been able to go through just a single practice, but storms rendered Thursday unplayable, so they went in blind.

They took a ninth anyway.

The calls continued to come: Brook Bauer needed a partner for Manhattan Beach, and on only a day or two of practice, they finished seventh. Emily Stockman needed a blocker for Chicago and they promptly claimed a ninth. Rice teamed up with Bauer again for Laguna, alas competing with the same partner twice, and they made a run to the finals.

“She deserves to be playing in the main draw. That’s the level she’s at,” Simo said. “She might just be in the main draw, which is wild, having never been through a qualifier. Did she get in a very unconventional way? Yeah, but she got opportunities and made the most of it.”

The legendary AVP emcee and now host of a Los Angeles Lakers studio show, Chris Geeter McGee, has a life motto: “My biggest thing was when preparation and opportunity meet, and they will meet, you better be ready to take a hack,” he said when he appeared on SANDCAST. “You better be ready to go. And that’s the whole thing because in life, whether it’s business, sports, you’re gonna get an opportunity, but you gotta be ready.”

Rice knew she was only one opportunity away. She had done the work. She hired a coach, enlisted a trainer, got herself into shape. When the opportunity came, in the strangest of ways, she took her hack.

Now she’s the 2023 VolleyballMag AVP Rookie of the Year. Now the opportunities will continue to find her.

“It’s been a crazy summer,” she said, laughing, “to say the least.”