SOUTHINGTON — Two extremely diverse disciplines intersect under the auspices of Southington High School in the person of senior Rich Rivera.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Rivera has made incredible gains as a wrestler in the 220-pound weight class since first reporting to coach Derek Dion prior to last season after playing basketball as an underclassman. His physique and athleticism made him a two-way terror for coach Mike Drury’s football team.
Yet when Rivera speaks of his future, the comparatively placid world of art captivates his consciousness. He’s as masterful brandishing utensils for drawing as he is knifing at an opponent’s ankles for a takedown or soaring above the reach of a 5-10 cornerback for a pass.
The motivation within him connects the two disciplines.
“Passion carries along for almost everything,” he said. “You get better at everything you love.”
This fall, Rivera caught 27 passes for 344 yards and five touchdowns, second on the team to Anthony Plantamuro in all three categories. As a defensive end, he made four tackles behind the line of scrimmage and deflected six passes, one of which he turned into an acrobatic dive for an interception that had Drury yearning to see it on tape.
While Rivera weighs his athletic future, he sees his love and talent for art as the vehicle that will carry his future.
“I take art now and I’m pretty good at it,” he said. “I usually draw. I may end up teaching.”
At the moment, football seems his likely athletic pursuit as he contemplates his next step, but academics come first.
“I’m definitely looking at colleges — any school that’s going to give me good academics — or maybe prepping for one year,” Rivera said.
Drury said that colleges at different levels surely are interested. Rivera was named offensive player of the year for the 2016 Blue Knights.
“Remember Tyler Hyde (Class of 2014, 1,464 rushing yards, 21 touchdowns)? He went to Springfield and he started as a junior. He got their offensive player of the year and scored only one TD. He did everything else that made the offense go — the blocking, the intangibles. It reminded me of Richie and solidified why we wanted to name him offensive player of the year,” Drury said.
“He’s growing into a phenomenal athlete. You don’t get a lot of kids with that size and stature over the years. Plus, he has a tremendous demeanor.
Rivera was coming into his own as a basketball player. As a sophomore reserve, he averaged 4.6 points per game with increased playing time as an upperclassman a virtual lock. But he suffered a broken leg that cost him his junior year on the football field and prevented him from playing basketball last season.
“I wanted to change it up a little bit, so I did something I thought I was capable of doing. I started wrestling and it worked out,” Rivera said.
Did it ever. Rivera has been a virtual pinning machine in dual meets. He’s competed very well at two of the most competitive tournaments in the Northeast and looms as a high seed for the Class LL Tournament that looms later this month.
“I had him as a freshman football player and I liked him,” Dion said. “I knew he was a basketball player, so I never really approached him to wrestle. His junior year, he comes out and says, ‘I think I’ll wrestle.’ He signed up, but I didn’t think he’d even show. But he came in and took to it right away.
“I taught him a couple of moves and he used them to get to the finals of the junior varsity tournament. He’s a good athlete, he’s a big, strong kid and he learns quickly.”
In the Jan. 11 showdown with Platt, Rivera squared off with squat, powerful Platt junior Chris Bonilla. After a scoreless first period, Bonilla deferred and Rivera chose the down slot. He promptly reversed Bonilla and pinned him at 2:25.
“I was doing what we learned in practice,” Rivera said. “I try to keep moving and taking good shots by setting them up right. If you keep on moving, it definitely opens up something, so that’s my go-to.”
Dion says that Rivera has the stuff to compete at the college level.
“Wrestling coaches are starting to get interested in him because he has a lot of potential,” said Dion, who showcased him at the Lowell Holiday Tournament in Massachusetts and at the Eastern States Classic in New York, where college coaches congregate. “I don’t think he thinks of himself as a college wrestler, maybe not even a high school wrestler, but if he doesn’t give it a chance he may miss the boat.
“The sky’s the limit. He’s as strong as anybody he’s going to wrestle. All he lacks is experience.”
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