Walk-on to SEC POY: Alabama’s Krystal Rivers ends with a flourish

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Alabama's Krystal Rivers was the SECs player of the year and scholar-athlete of the year/Robert Sutton, UA Athletics

It’s not likely that Alabama’s Krystal Rivers will get 40 kills Saturday at LSU, so she’ll finish second in the NCAA in kills this season.

Which isn’t bad for a walk-on who has battled through birth defects, wears a urostomy bag on her side at all times and overcame cancer as a sophomore.

Rivers, a 5-foot-11 senior from Birmingham, this past Wednesday was named the Southeastern Conference player of the year. That night she had 35 kills in a victory over Ole Miss. She was also named the league’s volleyball scholar-athlete of the year. Rivers already has her business degree from Bama and is working on another degree in Spanish.

Barring a late reprieve from the NCAA on Sunday night, the match at LSU will end her career.

“After four and a half years, it’s weird,” said Rivers, who redshirted as a freshman.

That’s because when she arrived at Alabama, coach Ed Allen had a lot of teaching to do with the kid who first played volleyball as a junior in high school and didn’t play club until her senior year.

“She wasn’t good enough to play for us,” Allen cracked, “and we were dead last in the SEC.”

But Rivers can touch 10-8 or so, she said, so that wasn’t a bad start.

She almost never got started in volleyball.

“My freshman year of high school I missed the tryouts,” she said with a laugh.

“Sophomore year I had my last major surgery, so I couldn’t play any sports.”

Among her birth defects was a bladder that didn’t work, she explained, and that last surgery left her with a urostomy bag — “It’s basically like an artificial bladder,” she said — that holds her urine. Understand that she plays with it.

“I’ve never had any problems,” she said matter-of-factly.

She thought of herself as a tennis player, “and I actually missed the (volleyball) tryouts again my junior year,” she said. “But they had a second tryout. I made JV. Senior year I made varsity.”

That was when she decided to skip tennis that spring and play club volleyball.

She got into Alabama on a full ride for academics after graduating from high school with a 4.48 GPA as a member of the National Honor Society.

As a redshirt-freshman, Rivers made All-SEC and was an honorable mention AVCA All-American after leading the Crimson Tide with 435 kills, 3.57 per set.

But soon after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.

“I was diagnosed the spring of my freshman year,” she recalled. “I battled it and was in complete remission April 24, 2014, and finished chemo in July right before we started our two-a-days.”

Her sophomore year, Rivers was an AVCA third-team selection. She led the SEC in kills (557), kills per set (4.19), and aces (48).

“I have so much respect for Krystal,” Kentucky coach Craig Skinner said. “Her perseverance and resiliency aside from her talent is amazing. It’s been a pleasure to compete against her for the last four years.”

“Krystal is one of the most uniquely talented athletes to play in our game,” Florida coach Mary Wise said. “She also played with a motor that we’ve seldom seen.”

That continued her junior year, when Rivers moved to outside hitter and was second in the SEC with 451 kills.

This year, on a team with few other options, Rivers has 675 kills — more than 400 more than her nearest teammate — is hitting .295, and is averaging 5.82 kills per set.

Danielle Rygelski of Saint Louis, whose season ended last week, leads the NCAA with 715 kills. Rivers has 675, followed by Katie Staiger of Baylor, who has 642 and plays No. 4 Kansas on Saturday.

“It’s been quite a journey,” Allen said. “The kid goes from being a walk-on to player of the year. She’s dealt with a lot of adversity and has embraced that and it’s allowed her to be successful in the field that she’s in and she still has tons of potential to develop.

Rivers will likely play professionally next year and looks forward to traveling.

“I didn’t think I was good enough to play at this level when I was coming into college,” Rivers said. “My first couple of weeks of practice I had no confidence whatsoever.

“But through the support system I’ve built with this team and the fans at Alabama and my coaches, they’ve given me the confidence to achieve things both on the court and off the court.

“It allowed me to develop into a leader, a better player and I’m incredibly grateful for my years at Alabama.”

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