By Tim Kelly
“There is no time like the present.” -ancient proverb
More than most people, James Rice appreciates the power of “now.”
The Ocean City High school senior defensive lineman had a false start or two during his career with the Raiders. But Rice enjoyed a memorable coming out party during his team’s 26-6 opening night victory over Oakcrest last week.
And Rice is anxious to build on it today against powerful Cedar Creek.
Rice, a 6-4, 240-pounder with 5.0 speed in the 40, was in the Oakcrest backfield most of the night, recording three sacks, six tackles and turning in one of the most memorable plays of the night.
Lining up at right defensive end, Rice streaked through the trenches and splattered Falcon running back Marques Miller for a 5-yard loss. The play was visually memorable because the momentum of the tackle caused Rice to roll over the prone Miller. Photographers caught the moment Rice was literally standing on his head, helmet-to-helmet with his opponent.
The play, which produced gasps and then wild cheers from the Ocean City fans, also came with an air of mystery.
“Who is this guy?” The question was oft-repeated and natural. Rice, despite his large size and membership in the senior class, was largely unknown many OC fans. He did not play a down last season and sparingly before that, after first dressing varsity as a frosh.
Despite not having much of a previous resume, it was clear against Oakcrest that Rice was the most dominant force on a defense that held the Falcons to just 22 rushing yards.
In the base defense, Ocean City usually shows a three-man front. The rotation also includes Chad DiDonna, Arthur Spackman, Zack Clark, Billy Kroger and Jackson Young (currently out with an injury.)
“We have a more aggressive scheme this year, more of a downhill approach,” coach Kevin Smith said. “We rotate guys to keep them fresh. Jimmy is really quick off the ball. When you’re that big and that fast, you can do some things out there.”
So why wasn’t Rice doing those things until now?
“My maturity level wasn’t what it should have been,” he said. “But now I’m 100 percent all in. I realize what it takes to learn and improve as a player, and I realize that this is my senior year and I don’t have a lot of time left to do it.”
“When the light bulb went on, Jimmy became a very good player,” Smith said. “He loves football, and he really wants to go to college. He sees football as an avenue to do that. Yesterday he was our best player at practice,” Smith told OCNJDaily on Thursday.
Rice came into his own as an athlete in the spring, when he emerged as one of South Jersey’s best weight throwers in track and field. His hard work in the shot put resulted in a personal best throw of 43 feet, five inches, and he placed third in the Cape May County meet, which the Raiders’ boys and girls teams swept.
“My success (in track and field) opened my eyes as to what I might be able to accomplish in football, the sport I love the most,” Rice said. “Since then I have been putting out maximum effort every day. I’m just trying to get better.”
He cited defensive line coach Mike Eisenstein as a big influence. “Coach Mike has a lot of experience and he is always in my ear giving me instruction. He definitely challenges me.”
Rice, who hopes to pursue a criminal justice degree, said an extensive support system has aided his development.
“My parents (mom Kim Ludovich and step-dad Craig Mowers) my family and friends, my coaches, our fans have all been amazing,” he said, “but the main support comes from my teammates. I feed off their passion and enthusiasm, and I hope they feed off me.”
The Raiders have a big test today when they travel to Cedar Creek for a 1 p.m. kickoff at the school on New York Avenue in Egg Harbor City. The Pirates are the defending West Jersey League, Independence champs. They went 12-2 last year and advanced all the way to the South Jersey Group I title game, where they lost to West Deptford.
However, Ocean City is on a roll of its own. Going back to the middle portion of last year’s schedule, the Raiders have won six of their last seven games.
“The challenge (of playing Cedar Creek) is in front of us, Rice said, “but we are definitely up to the challenge.”