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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Whether it’s giving her team a mid-match pep talk, smacking a kill in crunch time or even tickling one of her brothers in a driveway pickup game, Callie Rivers will do whatever it takes to win.

The senior outside hitter simply hates losing.

She always has, and she always will. 

Regardless of if it’s the O’Connell Center floor with thousands looking on, like today against Auburn at 4 p.m., or the side of her house when nobody’s watching.

Even at a young age, she wouldn’t let her limited basketball acumen keep her from achieving victory.

“I’m terrible at basketball, honestly,” said Rivers, who is the daughter of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “I can’t say I was picked first in the pickup games. But everybody knows that I hate losing and I’ll do anything to win. Even if I’m guarding my brother and I have to tickle him. Whatever it takes.”

That competitive nature has easily transitioned over to the volleyball court, where Rivers has been one of the team’s leaders since the beginning of her sophomore year.

In practices and matches, Rivers has pushed herself and her teammates to give their best every day as they pursue their ultimate goal: a national championship.

Woman among boys

Rivers has been a competitive person for as long as she can remember.

Growing up in a basketball family with three talented brothers and an NBA coach for a father, it was only natural that Rivers had a competitive fire in everything she did.

“She’s all about winning, and it’s the same attitude off the court,” said her brother Jeremiah, a 23-year-old senior basketball player at Indiana University. “No matter what we’re doing, if it’s rummy, spades, other card games, any family competition, it’s all competitive with her.”

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That spirit was never clearer than in her family’s pickup basketball games, where Rivers would use whatever tactics she could to try to will her team to a win.

“On the basketball court she’ll get goofy and try to make us laugh,” Jeremiah said. “She’ll even cheat sometimes and play a little dirty. She wasn’t all that great, but she was a crazy hustler.”

While playing the game honed her competitive side, it was watching it that really precipitated her drive to reach greatness.

When her father’s Boston Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers to win the 2008 NBA Championship, Rivers and her family were in their customary courtside seats.

Rivers got to take part in the team’s on-court celebration, where she saw up close and personal what the emotions of winning a championship are like.

“When [the Celtics] won, seeing how happy they were, it just makes you want to experience that,” Rivers said. “I know I would love to experience that this year.”

Practice makes perfect

Rivers’ nonstop motor has been essential for taking some of the grind out of a four-month volleyball season.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a team to fall into a rut and simply coast through practice, but that certainly won’t happen on Rivers’ watch.

“Complacency certainly hasn’t become a part of this team, nor will we let it,” coach Mary Wise said. “I don’t think Callie Rivers will let it.”

For a team that preaches being a “work in progress” despite its No. 1 ranking, there is no room to take time off in practice.

This message is clear as day in Rivers’ mind, and she refuses to watch other teams improve while the Gators rest on their laurels.

“You just have to make sure that everyone realizes that even in the middle of the season you don’t want to get into a lull,” Rivers said. “Other top teams are taking every single rep seriously and trying to get better, and at the end of the season you don’t want to remember that one rep you took off that could’ve made you better.”

To this end, Rivers and the Gators have started to attach scores not only to team scrimmages, but also to many individual drills.

And even when they don’t, Rivers’ teammates still have to be prepared for her to give it her all on every point.

“Having Callie makes practice a lot more fun, because even if it’s a drill and there’s not even a score, if you’re blocking against her, you know that she’s definitely going to try to get it past you,” junior Kelly Murphy said. “It kinda makes it a little game within the game.”

The senior’s constant full-throttle effort gives her teammates someone to look up to and emulate.

“I think if you come into practice knowing that you’re going to have to fight and work hard for every point, it makes you automatically get better,” Murphy said.

Final Destination

Rivers’ motivational skills and take-charge personality are not just confined to the practice court.

When the Gators hit a slump in the middle of a tight match, they all know they can turn to her for encouragement.

“She’s really good at getting people back on track,” senior middle blocker Lauren Bledsoe said. “She’ll probably first tell everyone to settle down, calm down, not get so fired up and not let the atmosphere get the best of us.”

“She’d say that we need to come back, have respect for ourselves and just play better, point blank.”

Typically, an appeal of this nature evokes an immediate response from Rivers’ teammates.

They know that she’s been in the program for four years, been surrounded by athletics her whole life and knows what it takes to win.

“It’s just like, ‘Wow, she knows that we’re all better than this, so we need to step it up and just do what we’ve been practicing and what we know we can do,’” Murphy said.

Rivers says that one inspiration for her pep talks is the sense of urgency coach Wise expects to see from all of her seniors as they try to end their careers on a high note.

Rivers, Bledsoe and libero Erin Fleming all understand that this is their last chance to take home a title and leave their mark on the program.

This feeling of desperation is one Rivers looks to spread through some of the younger players via her motivational speech.

“People on our team know that since I’m a senior, and Lauren and Erin are seniors, that this is our last chance,” Rivers said. “So if you’re not going to do it for yourself just do it for one of us, because we want to win this year and every single opportunity that we have to get better we need to take it.”

To this point the message appears to have been taken to heart, as the Gators have risen from preseason No. 13 all the way to No. 1.

But only time will tell if Rivers’ leadership, fire and competitive drive can lift Florida to its first-ever national championship.

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