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<p>UF catcher Mike Rivera throws a ball back to the pitcher’s mound during Florida’s 2-0 win against Miami on Feb. 25, 2017, at McKethan Stadium.</p>

UF catcher Mike Rivera throws a ball back to the pitcher’s mound during Florida’s 2-0 win against Miami on Feb. 25, 2017, at McKethan Stadium.

Mike Rivera was doing his best to stay positive given the circumstances of his injury.

He was continuing to be a good teammate, serving as the heart and soul of Florida’s baseball program, just as he’d always done.

He was continuing to display a strong work ethic, showing up to practice every day and leading by example, just as he’d always done.

He was continuing to smile, joking and laughing with his teammates, just as he’d always done.

But first baseman JJ Schwarz could see it in Rivera’s eyes. UF’s starting catcher wasn’t happy to be sitting out game after game with a broken hamate bone.

In fact, it was eating away at him inside.

“It was tough to watch,” Schwarz said. “He wanted to be out there so badly with us. He spent a lot of time in the training room. Whenever I was in there, I could see him doing all the rehab stuff he needed to do. He was doing whatever it took to get out on the field as fast as he could.”

Rivera broke the hamate bone in his right hand on April 11 following a check swing in the seventh inning of a game against FSU. The injury kept the junior from Venice, Florida, off the field for the final month and a half of the regular season, causing him to miss 22 games.

Rivera had only sat out five games in his first two seasons with the Gators, playing in the other 133 contests to serve as a mainstay in coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s lineup.

So when the catcher suddenly lost his ability to play the sport he loves on an everyday basis, it took a toll on his psyche.

“It was rough for me,” Rivera said. “It made me appreciate the little things that sometimes get taken for granted.”

Luckily for Rivera, after a month of dedicated rehab, his time on the bench finally came to a close last week.

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UF’s backstop returned to action in time for the SEC Tournament, starting all three games and hitting 1-for-7 at the plate with three runs scored.

While he hasn’t had a tremendous season offensively - batting .252 on the year with two home runs and 19 RBIs - his grit and leadership make him one of the most valuable members of Florida’s roster.

“Mike is Mike. He’s a tough kid,” third baseman Jonathan India said. “He does everything right. He’s always hustling around the field, works very hard. A lot of kids look up to him because of his work ethic. It’s good to have him back.”

Rivera’s return to game action comes just in time for the start of the NCAA Tournament, which begins on Friday at 7 p.m. against Marist.

The Gators are hosting the Red Foxes, as well as South Florida and Bethune-Cookman this weekend in the bracket’s regional round, a double-elimination-style round that Florida has advanced through six of the past eight years.

Sophomore Jackson Kowar will get the starting nod on Friday night with Rivera expected to be behind home plate.

While his wrist isn’t back to 100 percent health, Rivera said it had healed enough to the point where he couldn’t say no to playing in the postseason.

“It does feel better every single day,” he said. “I’m still doing a lot of rehab… and stretching it out, but it’s feeling a lot better.”

Contact Dylan Dixon at ddixon@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @dylanrdixon.

UF catcher Mike Rivera throws a ball back to the pitcher’s mound during Florida’s 2-0 win against Miami on Feb. 25, 2017, at McKethan Stadium.

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