Desiree Rivera immediately impressed others with her ability when she showed up for softball tryouts at Torrey Pines High.
The transfer student from Los Angeles had all the tools - speed, athleticism, excellent bunting ability and a powerful throwing arm – that landed her a spot on the varsity of one of the area’s most competitive softball programs as a freshman.
Her attitude was another story.
“I was goofing off, I wasn’t doing my work,” she said.
Her behavior earned her a one-way ticket to the JV.
Rivera acknowledged personal problems spilled over into other parts of her life that caused her to act out.
Rivera, an intense competitor who’d been playing since she was 8 years old, was not initially pleased with the demotion, “but then I realized I deserved it because if I’m gonna have a bad attitude towards this then I don’t deserve it.
“It’s going to go to the girls who have good attitudes and try their hardest, not to the ones who don’t try at all and don’t care.”
Owning up to her mistakes helped Rivera learn from them.
And two years removed from being the team troublemaker, she is now viewed as a role model.
Her teammates last month voted her team captain.
“She’s a great leader and they love her,” Falcons softball coach Jon Moore said. “It’s just a joy to watch.”
Rivera wasn’t in a joyful place when she came to Torrey Pines as a transfer from Kennedy of Granada Hills (Los Angeles County) midway through her freshman year.
Rivera grew up in Los Angeles but moved to San Diego before seventh grade after her mother, Barbara Rivera-Ridener, remarried. Then after two years in San Diego she returned to Granada Hills to live with her grandparents when Barbara Rivera-Ridener, and her stepfather, Matthew Ridener, both Naval reservists, received deployment orders.
Her mother was on a year-long deployment to Camp Lemonnier on the Horn of Africa in Djibouti during Rivera’s freshman year.
Rivera expected to spend her entire freshman year in Granada Hills but moved back to San Diego for the spring semester because her stepfather was issued a medical deferment.
Softball had cemented Rivera’s relationship with her mother, who saw her grow into a star on the club circuit.
Rivera played for the Power Surge and Firecrackers travel teams in San Diego, and Diamond in the San Fernando Valley.
“It was just a thing that brought me and my mom closer because she loves watching my softball games,” Rivera said. “We’d always go together, and we’d always talk about the game right after.”
Rivera didn’t take her mom’s deployment well. She said she felt abandoned.
“That’s what made me act the way I did freshman year, especially towards softball,” she said.
Rivera was the everyday shortstop on the junior varsity for the first half of her freshman year, but an injury led to her getting called up to the varsity, and she became the team’s everyday catcher for the last 17 games of the season.
Rivera was mindful of not repeating past mistakes.
“Once I moved up to varsity I realized, I can’t be acting up, or I can’t have a bad attitude because I’m a freshman and the older girls would put me in my place,” she said.
Rivera impressed coaches with her growth the rest of her freshman year, and then with her mom back from deployment, she flourished as a sophomore.
A natural middle infielder, Rivera played mostly first base and the outfield her sophomore year without complaints.
This season she’s played shortstop and multiple outfield positions and has taken on a leadership role on a team that suffered heavy graduation losses.
Torrey Pines, which over its previous 10 years won six league championships and two San Diego Section titles, graduated six seniors, including four four-year starters.
Moore believes that Rivera’s transformation makes her a uniquely effective leader who brings empathy to her role.
“She can take a kid who’s on the fence or can go either way and say, ‘I was the bad attitude at one time, I was that person and it’s got to change or it’s not going to work. Coach Moore won’t put up with it and your teammates won’t put up with it, and you’ll be unhappy,’” Moore said. “The best thing is she’s so fun. She’ll be joking around, talking to everybody and she’s dancing, wearing cowboy hats in practice. She’s a happy kid now. I love it.”
Rivera said Moore had told her last fall that he believed she’d make a good captain. She wanted to demonstrate it.
“I wanted to prove it to the girls that I’d be a good captain, so when we had our softball PE class, I was explaining to the new freshman what we were doing. I was kind of taking charge of situations that we were in during softball, to show them that I’m a hard-worker.”
Winning the votes of her peers has made her transformation especially fulfilling.
“It’s a really good feeling because it just showed me that I could change my attitude and that I wouldn’t always live with an attitude problem. It just showed me what I’m capable of achieving and that I’m a good person and capable of changing my attitude towards everything, my perspective. I needed to work hard to gain respect from people.”
Rivera said she plans to follow her parents’ footsteps in the military, which means forgoing the possibility of a softball scholarship.
She plans to train to be an X-ray technician after completing her service as an enlisted member of a medical unit. Her stepfather is a Master Chief Corpsman, and her mother a Chief Corpsman.
“I want to be able to work my way up to their ranks because I feel like that would be a big accomplishment for me in life, and I know for a fact they’d be proud of me,” she said.