GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Planning a family vacation is nothing for Kris Rivers, the mother of Gators senior volleyball player Callie Rivers.
Making all the arrangements is relaxing compared to when her husband, Boston Celtics coach Glenn “Doc’’ Rivers, and their four kids show up for the fun and games. Once Callie and her brothers became teenagers and began to flash their dad’s competitive drive and athletic ability, Kris finally raised a white flag.
A couple of years ago during a family vacation in Key Biscayne, Kris thought it would be great for the family to get outside and play a friendly game of tennis. There was nothing friendly about it. She was worried more about broken bones than serves and volleys.
“My kids are diving for balls,’’ Kris said. “They are psycho competitive, all four of them. I’m ranked at the bottom of the totem pole. I’m like, ‘Why can’t we all win and like each other and have fun?’ Everyone looks at me with total disdain with that.
“It really all comes from my husband, 110 percent of it.’’
A former NBA All-Star and now in his seventh season as Boston’s head coach, Rivers once told Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise that of his kids – Jeremiah, Callie, Austin and Spencer – his only daughter was probably the most competitive.
In her final season, Callie Rivers has been what Wise calls the “heart and soul’’ of the No. 1-ranked Gators, who open the NCAA Tournament on Friday night at home against South Carolina State.
“She has really taken on the leadership role of this program, to the point where it’s one of the key ingredients of our success,’’ Wise said. “When you have that kind of talent, with that kind of leadership combined, that makes the coaching a whole lot easier.’’
Wise can even pinpoint the moment Callie emerged to become that leader.
Not surprisingly, it came after a loss at Tennessee during her junior season.
“I stood outside the locker room for a very long time waiting for Callie to finish talking to her teammates,’’ Wise said. “She ran that meeting. It was a pretty high-volume type meeting. By the time I got in there, there was nothing I had to say.
“She had said it all.’’
The Gators responded by winning the rest of their matches until a loss to eventual national champion Penn State in the NCAA Tournament.
More than a year later, Callie remembers exactly what prompted her to take on more of a leadership role following the match at Tennessee, which had followed a loss to LSU – the only time in her career the Gators lost back-to-back matches.
“I hate losing,’’ she said. “That was kind of the breaking point for me. I wanted everyone to kind of see it from my point of view, and I found out that a lot of people on our team felt the same way.’’
To really know what drives Callie, you have to know her family.
“A perfect day for Callie would be if every practice was a game,’’ Wise said. “She loves to keep score.’’
Callie doesn’t remember her dad’s NBA playing career much except for the final stages in New York and San Antonio, but she was in middle school in Orlando when he coached the Magic. It was a busy time around the Rivers’ home. When Callie wasn’t running track or playing volleyball or soccer, she often was somewhere in a gym watching her brothers play.
Basketball has been the family’s sport of choice. Doc Rivers is the nephew of former NBA player Jim Brewer, and the cousin of former NBA player Byron Irvin and baseball player Ken Singleton. Meanwhile, Rivers’ two oldest sons chose to follow in his footsteps.
Jeremiah is now a senior guard at Indiana, and Austin is a senior at Winter Park High and headed to Duke next season. Spencer is the baby of the bunch. Growing up with three brothers and blossoming as an athlete at an early age made Callie embrace the family’s competitive nature instead of running the other way.
After flirting with track and soccer, she turned to volleyball full-time as a sophomore in high school and hasn’t looked back. Callie earned first-team All-SEC honors this season, ranking second on the team with 2.58 kills per set and third in the SEC with 0.31 service aces per set.
With her career at Florida coming to a close, Rivers shared Senior Day recently with the people who prepared her to become a force for the Gators.
“Everyone in my family, we hate losing,’’ she said. “My family competes over the most random things that you would think are not even possible to compete at. We’ll find a way to go at it. You just learn to find a way to win.’’
Sometimes it’s racing to the car to see who gets there first; sometimes it’s a game of Jeopardy at the kitchen table; and other times it’s a game of tennis that includes bloody knees and elbows.
Whatever it is, Kris knows that her daughter isn’t going to back down.
“Callie was taller than everybody and more coordinated [at an early age],’’ Kris said. “She could either go run with that or feel awkward. And Callie chose to make the most out of her height and athleticism.’’
HER FINAL DANCE
Kris has already told the rest of the family that as long as the No. 1-ranked Gators (27-1) are playing in the NCAA Tournament, she’ll be there watching Callie, which means missing a big tournament in Winter Park that Austin is playing in this weekend and not traveling to any of Jeremiah’s games at Indiana.
“I think in four years, I have probably missed less than three home matches,’’ Kris said. “It’s been such a treat to watch Callie. Looking back, it’s gone by in a blur.’’
No one is going to miss Callie more than Wise, who didn’t even have to make a home visit during the recruiting process. Callie wanted to come to Florida, and Wise wanted her here.
Early on, Callie endured some difficult stretches, including earning a starting spot as a true freshman but later being benched as she adjusted to Wise’s system. But her talent and competitiveness made the benching temporary, and she has helped the Gators win three SEC titles in four seasons.
“Her volleyball IQ has skyrocketed,’’ Wise said. “Who Callie is today is a reflection of the adult she is going to be. And that is a team-oriented, gifted player who sees the big picture. If I had my way, she would go into coaching.
“She wants no part of coaching.’’
Rivers isn’t sure what’s next. She majored in telecommunications production and is interested in perhaps a career in sports broadcasting one day. Wise sees Rivers being successful at whatever she chooses. She also sees a lively personality who could go into acting after watching Rivers master impersonations of her teammates over the years.
Callie isn’t ready to look ahead. She wants to appreciate the moment.
“It’s my last chance for everything,’’ she said. “So far, it’s been pretty ideal for a senior year. Hopefully if we continue to get better and work on what we need to work on, [this season] will finish as my best year.’’
If the Gators can win the NCAA title, that would undoubtedly put a huge smile on the player Wise calls “the face of Florida volleyball.’’