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Rivera steps forward to accept challenge

What Central coach Lori Lessley saw as a sacrifice, Noemi Rivera viewed as an opportunity.

A move Lessley feared might limit Rivera's scoring only added to it. The sophomore guard was moved to forward after the Bears lost two post players late last month. Even after the switch, Rivera leads the squad in rebounds (9 per game), assists (1.7) and steals (3.6) and ranks second in scoring (7.3).

"I don't think it's hurt her game," Lessley said, "but it's helped us as a team."

Rivera's selflessness was one of many reasons Lessley named her a co-captain before her second varsity season and first as a starter.

Central needed a leader after it lost seven seniors, including all five starters, to graduation after last season. To help fill the void, Lessley turned to Rivera, who she said leads by example on and off the court, listens to her coaches, hustles, plays hurt and is willing to do anything to help her team.

"I don't even look at her and think of her being a sophomore," Lessley said. "To me, she has the maturity of being a senior, and what's important to me is she demonstrates things I think are important _ hard work and leading by example."

Lessley looked back to Rivera when the Bears needed a second post player. The coach knew moving her from guard would limit her chances to penetrate and score, but Rivera more than made up the difference with putbacks and free throws.

Lessley said she chose Rivera because she worked previously as the No. 3 or 4 post player and showed the aptitude to pick up new things in a hurry.

Best of all, Rivera was enthusiastic about the change.

"I love playing down low," Rivera said. "I love being physical. You can be more physical down low than you can be at the top."

Rivera, 16, learned to play physically by going one-on-one against her brother, Hector, who is a year older. He starts for the Central boys and plays with the same reckless abandon his sister does.

In fact, Rivera said she tries to pattern her game after her brother, who is the Bears' leading charge-taker and among its most conscientious defenders.

"He's always taught me to be tough and just to work hard, just don't get pushed over and be okay with it, keep your ground, stay physical, stay in the game," Rivera said.

Rivera made a similarly smooth transition during volleyball, when she established five school records, including most assists (525) and aces (111), in her first season at setter. Afterward, she was recognized as one of three Gulf Coast Athletic Conference players of the year.

"When Coach (Jim) Jensen said, "I'm going to put you at setter,' I didn't know if I could really do it," Rivera said. "Setting those records just gave me confidence."

If Rivera's confidence spreads to her basketball teammates, improving Central (3-16) could be a squad to be reckoned with the next few seasons.

"The record really doesn't matter, just as long as you know your team's improving and know they're not coming off the court like, "We didn't give our all,' " Rivera said. "We gave our all every night. If we continue to grow as a team, we can't go anywhere but up from here."