Setting the Tone: Wilson, Rivers lead volleyball team to record-setting seasonBy Kayla Montgomery | 11/19/2014 11:14pm
As the semester winds to a close, the Alabama volleyball team’s fourth season under coach Ed Allen is nearing its end as well, though the team’s pursuit of its goals are just beginning.
With four matches remaining in the regular season, the team is on pace to break a school record for season wins after tying the record of 24 wins, set last season. Leading the team on this quest to break new records are its two captains, junior setter Sierra Wilson and redshirt sophomore outside hitter Krystal Rivers.
“They’re two personalities that are somewhat reserved but set an example by how they conduct themselves and how they use their voices in a very positive way with their teammates,” Allen said of the captains. “They’re kids that appreciate one another and enjoy each other’s company. They look to problem solve together, and it makes it pretty easy effortless to work together.”
A native of Anaheim, California, Wilson began searching for a sport to play at an early age. She found herself deciding between volleyball and basketball, and ultimately decided to pursue volleyball after drawing inspiration from the Olympic Games.
“I remember that summer was the Olympics in Athens, and I remember watching Misty May and Kerri Walsh win the gold medal, and that decided it,” Wilson said.
Shortly after picking up the game at age 10, it was clear that Wilson had natural talent. She began “playing up,” or playing at higher age levels, setting for a 14-year-old team at age 12. At that point, her parents, Blake and Laura Wilson, realized their daughter had found a sport that she would carry with her.
“She had a great attitude,” Laura Wilson said. “She was all business, and she never complained, which was very unusual because at that age, most people aren’t that focused. She couldn’t understand why some of the other teammates were not as into it as she was.”
When her recruiting process began, Sierra Wilson wasn’t sure where she would play collegiately, but knew she wanted to travel beyond the state of California. Alabama wasn’t initially on her radar, she said, until the school came to her.
“I wanted to cast a wide net,” she said. “Alabama really found me, in a way. Junior year they gave me a call and said, ‘You just have to see it.’ I was like, ‘This is random, but ok,’ and it ended up being the perfect place for me.”
The personnel at the University played a large role in her decision, she said, as she and Allen shared the same goals, both looking to build a program to prominence.
So far, the team is on track to do just that as it continually matches and rivals school records for wins. Most recently, the team has secured its second consecutive 20-win season, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since 2004-05.
“When I made the decision to come to Alabama in the first place, I knew that this was a program that was in building,” Wilson said. “It was in a transition phase and it was on its way to something great, and I knew that was going to take some time. I think a lot of the girls came here because they knew that. Being at this point where we’re starting to reap the rewards of the first couple of years is very rewarding, and at the same time it’s a justification to keep pushing to get better.”
Sierra Wilson became a starting setter her freshman year, and now as a junior, leads the team as one of the older members of the young group.
“She’s learning how to communicate and how to motivate and what’s required there,” Allen said. “There are times to stroke, times to bite, times to hug, times to bat people on the hind end, and she’s learning how to put all those pieces together to manage her team in a way that gets the most out of each player.”
Her parents agreed that their daughter has the special ability to relate to people individually, and though it’s a quality she’s always possessed, it has only grown during her time as an athlete.
“Being a leader and a setter for the team, you’re touching the second ball, and you’re like a quarterback,” Blake Wilson said. “I love how her leadership skills have grown, and I know she’ll take them through the rest of her life in the work world and her personal life.”
For redshirt sophomore Krystal Rivers, the journey to Alabama wasn’t always clear. She didn’t discover volleyball until later in her middle school years.
“I played in seventh grade, but it was for a really short time and I didn’t really learn a lot, but I learned to love the sport,” she said. “I’d always played sports, and then ninth grade I remember watching the final between Penn State and Texas in 2009, and learned to love it even more.”
Timing played a large part in Rivers’ recruitment, as most athletes, she explained, have already committed to a college by their sophomore year, one year before she was playing the sport regularly and competitively as a junior in high school.
As her playing time picked up, offers began to come in for college scholarships to several smaller schools. It was an academic scholarship, though, that caught Rivers’ eye and drew her to Alabama.
“My recruiting was really slow, it was really late because I didn’t start until my junior year of high school and I didn’t play club until my senior year,” Rivers said. “Alabama contacted me about a full academic scholarship and I was like, ‘Okay, I can do that.’ I contacted Coach Allen; I liked what he was doing here. He wanted me to be a part of the team.”
Rivers’ current success didn’t come without its struggles. She came to the University with much to learn, a process that wasn’t always easy.
“Once I got to Alabama, it was tough gaining confidence,” she said. “I was always nervous in practices because I was really raw. I had the talent, but I wasn’t refined at all, so that was a challenge. But coach Allen really worked with me, all my coaches worked with me, the players encouraged me, and that really helped.”
After refining her talent, Rivers excelled in her redshirt freshman season, leading the team in kills with 435 and setting a program single-season record with a .404 hitting percentage, which ranked third in the SEC and 21st nationally.
In January, Rivers learned news that could have potentially put an end to her blossoming college career. She was diagnosed with cancer – stage three Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The athlete didn't give up, though, as she made the decision to continue taking classes at Alabama and playing volleyball with the team.
Throughout her treatment process, Rivers continued practicing, all the while switching from her position of middle blocker to right-side hitter. Through it all, she said, her team was behind her.
“Whenever we were in the gym, they were encouraging me to continue to fight,” she said. “Going through something like that just helps you really appreciate the game. It helps you understand the game better and learn to play better because you’re playing at a time when you’re not 100 percent, so you’ve got to work to do things perfectly.”
This season, Rivers returned healthy and strong, leading the team across multiple categories and ranking among the top of the SEC in both kills and service aces.
“She’s a very talented athlete that shows up to work to try to get better, and is trying to help the team get better on a daily basis,” Allen said. “She’s somebody that is tough, in a positive way, with her teammates. She’s not overly critical, yet she has a certain degree of expectation and she lives that every day.”
Her mother, Deborah Rivers, said she sees the example her daughter sets for others as well, as Krystal Rivers is constantly rising above and beyond expectations.
“I’ve always been proud of Krystal, but I am extra proud of her because of all the obstacles in her way,” she said. “She’s a walking testimony, and I tell her that all the time. When people say ‘I can’t,’ there’s no such thing. She’s a perfect example of doing everything they said she couldn’t do, and doing even more.”