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Garces High's George Rice gets a hand to the face by San Joaquin Memorial's Josh Demarra as they play in the boys Central Section Division II semifinals in 2018. Rice, now a senior, signed a National Letter of Intent to play at Cal Baptist on Wednesday. 

To hear George Rice tell it, he seems to have stumbled into water polo almost at random.

Though small things — watching a match on TV, seeing a Bakersfield Water Polo Club flyer hanging on the family refrigerator — had occasionally piqued his interest in the sport, it would take a chance occurrence at a school fair to get him to give it a try.

"My coach (Jason Gall) had a booth there and he had a raffle for a free month of water polo," said Rice, then a fifth grader at Stockdale Elementary. "And we ended up winning."

While it took an act of random chance to first get him into the pool, getting him to come out soon became a tall task.

"I tried it out and I fell in love," Rice said. "(Winning the raffle) really put things in motion."

Now, it's put into motion an opportunity to play at the Division I collegiate level. Rice, a senior at Garces Memorial High School, signed a National Letter of Intent with Cal Baptist on Wednesday.

Having also drawn interest from Long Beach State and Loyola Marymount, Rice said an immediate connection with both the team and the area helped set Cal Baptist apart.

"The team and the coaches just seemed like a great fit for me," he said. "And I loved the campus. It was a great location, close to the beach, close to the mountains. I felt like it gave me the best opportunity."

It will also give him a chance to reconnect with former Ram teammate Joseph Starr, who is currently a freshman two-meter defender at CBU.

Having been with him from the start, Garces and Bakersfield Water Polo and Swim Club coach Jason Gall has seen Rice's game evolve to the point where he can take on any role given to him.

Always known for his attack-heavy offensive prowess, Rice remained a big offensive weapon during his junior year, scoring 25 goals for a Ram team that went 16-7-1 and was undefeated in East Yosemite play in 2019.

But he was also tasked with taking on a bigger defensive role and playing more on the perimeter. Gall says he took on the additional responsibilities in stride, and believes that versatility will make his adjustment to the collegiate game a smooth one.

“A lot of times when a kid goes to a college program, what their role was in their high school or club might not be exactly what their role is in college," Gall said. "And I think he will be able to fill whatever role they need him to.”

Though Rice agrees that his varied skill set will help him acclimate to the college game, he acknowledges he still has a lot of work to do.

Forced to take an extended break from competitive action thanks to COVID-19, Rice has spent his time away working extensively on strength and conditioning. He says he's packed on 15 pounds of muscle in the last six month, with hopes of adding more.

"I'm going to be playing against grown men, so I have to be stronger," he said.

One thing he has less control over is the fate of his senior year of high school. The season has already been moved from the fall to the spring, and a recent rise in coronavirus cases has cast further doubt on whether it can even be played at all.

"From everybody I talk to, it's 50-50," Rice said. "Going into college having not played a game for over a year (would) be tough. (It would) definitely be tough not having a season and being able to play those games."

Even if he loses out on a final year of prep competition, Gall says Rice has shown a tireless dedication to improving his craft ever since cashing in his raffle ticket seven years ago. The coach believes that dedication will help carry him through any early difficulties he may encounter at the next level.

“A couple years ago he decided he wanted to play in college. It was something he had his mind set on and he’s done a lot of extra things to give himself the opportunity," Gall said. "To have it come together is very rewarding for him and his family and for us and our program.”