It’s not enough to be fast, even when nobody can catch you.
Mike Rivera discovered and came to understand this glitch of logic the summer before his junior season and now there’s no telling how far — or fast — he may go.
Sunnyside’s playmaker extraordinaire became the first athlete in Columbia Basin Big Nine history to top 1,100 receiving yards as a junior — a year after he recorded the league’s first 700-yard sophomore season.
Between those seasons, Rivera was introduced to the idea that speed will not always win the day. It needs to be measured, timed and dispensed to reach another level.
It needs an education.
“That summer I realized no matter the speed, there are corners out there who can shut you down,” he reflected with a smile. “What I learned then, and what I still deal with, is that patience is the key. With my speed I just want to take off all the time. But I learned a good receiver may have speed and strength, but a great receiver knows how to use them.”
Not a simple lesson to learn after such a productive sophomore year, most of which, he admits, was based on that speed. Not only did he catch 48 passes for 730 yards as a 10th-grader, but in the spring he qualified for the state track championships in both sprints and the 4x100.
Even with those credentials, Rivera took his revelation and literally ran with it, putting in the hard hours to become a better route-runner and more all-around athlete.
“I did hill workouts that summer, I would get up early to run routes at 6 a.m. — everything I could do to get better,” he said. “I couldn’t just rely on my speed. I did a whole bunch of things to get in the best shape I could. The key to all of it was running better routes and becoming a better athlete. It paid off.”
Just like a track race, Rivera flew out of the blocks.
In the season opener on his home field, Rivera scored on a 75-yard touchdown play in the first quarter in a 22-19 thriller over Prosser. He was a complete menace to defenses every Friday night, racking up nearly 600 yards in a four-game stretch against Richland, West Valley, Eisenhower and Hanford.
While the Grizzlies ended up one win shy of the state playoffs in an excruciating single-berth year, Rivera turned in one of the most dominant pass-catching seasons ever, leading the league by 385 yards, averaging 21.3 yards over his 52 receptions and scoring 13 touchdowns.
Then, come spring, he reached for and attained a higher level in track as well.
Unbeaten in all 100- and 200-meter races throughout the CBBN season, Rivera made the Class 4A state finals in both and earned a fourth-place medal in the 100 — the best finish by a local Big Nine sprinter in 18 years.
Even for an athlete as confident and hard-working as Rivera, the performance was a shock.
“I never thought I’d be one of the fastest kids in the state,” Rivera said flatly. “It hit me after, like, I’m really here and I really placed fourth. It’s still crazy to me. When you look at the picture of the finish it was close and intense and there I was, right in it.”
Buoyed by his ascension in track, Rivera turned his attention directly back to football and got busy with skills camps. In June, the Division I offers started coming in. First from Idaho, then from Georgetown. He performed very well at Eastern Washington’s camp and is hoping an offer from Cheney might soon be forthcoming.
All that is a “humble blessing” for Rivera, who’s letting the recruiting process run its course while he focuses on the tasks at hand for his final season. And they are considerable.
First off, he’s not just a receiver. Rivera is also an all-league defensive back who is moving from corner to safety. He had three interceptions as a junior, including one that preserved the Prosser victory.
“The same idea of patience I learned as a receiver is just as important on defense,” he said. “Another thing I learned is you never underestimate your receiver. See what they do, read him and the quarterback, react quick, anticipate — I love all that.”
Back on the offensive side, Rivera will have his third quarterback in three years. The Grizzlies are going young this season with sophomore Logan Rodriguez at the helm. Sunnyside’s go-to threat isn’t concerned, a reflection of his confidence in Rodriguez and head coach John Lobbestael.
“Logan’s a smart kid with a good arm,” he noted. “And Lobbestael’s a great coach who knows what he’s doing. We’ll see different coverages for me, but we’ll find ways. I’ve done a lot of work in the weightroom so I can be more physical. That means more shorter routes in space so we rely less on downfield stuff.”
Rivera offsets these challenges with a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that plays well in Sunnyside. He’s not the biggest receiver at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, but Rivera has multiple Division I offers. And the Grizzlies might enjoy the underdog role but nobody has won more league games in the last three years than Sunnyside.
“We always play with that chip and that’s what I love about us,” he said. “We have 17 seniors, which is crazy to think of, and we’re in charge now. It’s up to us. We have a lot of guys who are being leaders, which is awesome, and I have been thinking of this senior year for a long time.”
Catch him if you can.