Sept. 15, 2004
When Teresa Rivera committed to Florida State while the Seminoles were down in South Florida to play FIU in 2001, it was a big deal. Any time a Gatorade Player of the Year commits it is huge but when the player is your first Gatorade Player of the Year from Florida, it is even more special. The defender from Parkland, FL was set to play next to Katie Beal in the middle of the FSU defense for three years and that is the way things started in 2002.
“It has been exciting for me and it started with the recruiting process,” recalls Rivera. “Coach Baker is a great recruiter and I was happy to come to FSU. My expectations were to just do my best. I didn’t come here expecting there would be a lot of pressure on me to step out and start immediately. I was fortunate to win a starting job my first year as a freshman.”
While she feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to start now, stepping in as a rookie defender in the ACC is one of the most pressure filled roles in college soccer. That season Rivera saw action in 21 of FSU’s 23 games. She made 12 starts and those 12 starts all came in the first 14 games of her career. She started against Clemson’s Deliah Arrington, Florida’s Crystal Frimpong, Duke’s Casey McCluskey, Wake’s Alena Thom and Alyssa Ramsey and Lindsay Tarpley of North Carolina to just name a few.
“It was a big jump from high school,” said Rivera. “Everything is faster and the game is quicker. On an individual level the players are smarter and that is what I have learned the most from the college game. As a position player in the back, you have to not only know what you should be doing but what every player at every position should be doing as well.”
“It was pretty intimidating. You hear so much about Tarpley, Arrington, Ramsey, (Lori) Lindsey (Virginia) and the list just goes on. Outside of a little bit of video, you don’t even get to see them play before you have to defend them as a freshman. As the years go on you start to gain the confidence that you can play with them because you have in the past. Hopefully you become one of those intimidating defenders that those forwards don’t want to go against.”
Rivera is getting to that level but there have been ups and downs along the way. The central defender has been moved to the left side, she has lost her starting job on two separate occasions in 2002 and 2003 and has battled against her own confidence along the way. She has had to fight to regain her spot each preseason but outside of the rare player, those struggles are normal for a defender playing in the nation’s most dangerous soccer conference.
“It is very difficult to be a freshman defender when you consider the talented forwards we have in this conference,” said head coach Patrick Baker. “T (Teresa Rivera) came in and didn’t just play outside back her freshman year, she played center back. She did a great job under difficult circumstances. I don’t think she struggled as much as she was adjusting to the level of the college game at a difficult position.”
“That was a life lessons in itself when I lost my job last year,” said Rivera. “I learned not to give up. I now know how it is not to start and understand both sides. It taught me a lot. I learned to appreciate that starting job because you never know what can happen. Someone is always competing for your position. When my name flashes up on that scoreboard in the starting 11, it means so much more to me now. At my best I just want to be consistent.”
That consistency Rivera is searching for is a product of confidence. The junior knows that her level of play is directly tied to her confidence level. It may not be an ideal situation but it is one she is dealing with.
“Confidence is huge,” said Rivera. “Definitely with me, it plays a huge role. The game is so mental for me. When my confidence is up I play well. It isn’t good, but my game does depend a lot on my confidence and emotions. I have done better at controlling my confidence level and trying to keep it high. I have always looked for motivation from others. Now that I am in college and on my own, I have to find that motivation and confidence in myself. I struggled getting a grasp on that my freshman year. Now I do a better job of keeping myself motivated day-by-day and play-by-play.”
There was no lower point for Rivera than FSU’s 3-1 loss at Kansas last year, which sent the team to 1-4. After starting the first five games, Rivera was once again out of the top 11 after the Jayhawk loss. It was a tough blow for a player that thought she had made it over the hump winning back a starting spot in the preseason of her sophomore year.
“The Kansas game last year is one I would like to change,” recalls Rivera. “That’s definitely one I would like to get back. That is when I lost my starting position. It gave me a chance to see the games outside of the white lines. That helped me and that is the positive that came from a negative situation. It helped me better understand what I could do better and what I did well. It also gave me the drive and motivation to not be satisfied with my role on the bench, to regain a starting spot.”
Rivera got that starting spot back a month later although it wasn’t the way she hoped it would happen. When four-year starter and team captain Kristin Boyce broke her foot in the 12th game of the year, Rivera was called on to step back in to the line-up. The Tribe was in the midst of a streak in which they had posted a 7-1 record and had climbed out of the hole from a 1-4 start. Now Rivera’s teammates were once again looking to her to step in and start.
“At first I was down after losing my spot,” said Rivera. “I knew I had to keep my head up because if I wanted to get back in, I couldn’t keep my head down. I had to build myself up. The people around me were always encouraging me. My roommates, my family and my teammates kept pushing me to keep working. Unfortunately, Boyce got hurt and the team needed me to step in. I had the opportunity to finish off the season the way I wanted to, on the field and being fortunate enough to start in the final four.”
“Her being able to solidify that left back position after Boyce’s injury really allowed us to continue the season without missing a beat,” said Baker. “I thought the true test was Wake Forest. Although we didn’t win, that game ended up a tie, the fact we shut them out at their place for 110 minutes and T did a good job, I just knew we’d be fine. At that point in time she had started and then wasn’t starting. She realized it was a great opportunity for her and she grabbed it and never let it go. That is a credit to her.”
That stretch run turned out to be a blessing for Rivera. She was thrown back into the fire in the most difficult stretch of games on the Tribe schedule. She faced No. 1 North Carolina twice, and started every ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament game. She was on the field versus West Virginia in the Sweet 16, Florida in the Elite Eight and finally UConn in the final four.
“It was very exciting starting in the College Cup and the nerves from freshmen year came back that day because it was unchartered territory for us,” said Rivera. “To play in the final four was just an amazing experience. We wanted to get to the national title game but it goes didn’t go our way that day. A great experience nonetheless. Now we know what it takes to get there and we want to get back.
“Those last 11 starts boosted my confidence. I was so fortunate to be a part of that run to the College Cup. That helped me as we moved into spring because of the quality of teams I started against down the stretch. That is the foundation I built on heading into this season.”
If the Seminoles are going to get back there Rivera will have to play a huge role. In a defense that is coming off one of the best seasons in ACC history and the best season in school history, Rivera is now a junior who has started for at least 12 games each of her first two seasons. She is no longer the freshman thrust into the fire and she is being counted on as a leader in 2004.
“There is more of an understanding of what you need to do and what is expected of you as a junior compared to my rookie year,” said Rivera. “Freshman year you are always on an emotional high because it is the beginning of your college career. Now the nerves have definitely settled and there is more focus on what your job is instead of just being excited to play. I am still excited everyday but it is more controlled.”
That experience is helping Rivera as she regained her starting spot in the preseason and she is looking to once again contribute to a special defense. Despite her time on the bench, Rivera started 16 of 24 games on that record-setting backline last year and it is an accomplishment she is very proud of.
“We took a lot of pride in what this defense accomplished last year and it helped us get as far as we did,” said Rivera. “We defended well not just in the back four but as a team. Coach Baker has stressed that since I have been at FSU. The back four needs to be strong and we can’t give up easy goals. I was very proud of this team last year, the back four and Joy (McKenzie). We worked hard and accomplished some special things.
“We are very cohesive group. We understand each other. We know each other’s tendencies and there is a sense of comfort back there. We trust each other and would do anything for each other on and off the field. It is so comforting knowing the person next to you or behind you is there for you all the time”
That comfort and trust that has been built up in the back four is a key if FSU is to return to Cary, NC for the 2004 College Cup. Coach Baker has stressed to his team that the journey to get back to the final four is tough and many teams that get there one year don’t get back but Rivera thinks FSU has already cleared one major hurdle on that long road back.
“Last year we didn’t really believe deep down that we could do as well as we did,” said Rivera. “We all come to FSU to win a National Championship but I am not sure we all believed it could happen. Everyone just took it one step at a time and we kept surprising ourselves. Coach Baker was the only one who really knew we had what it took. Now we have that understanding. We know we are good enough, we know what it takes and we know how hard you have to work to make it a reality. We all believe now. We are one of the best teams in the country.”