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May 16, 2008
By Joe Guistina, USC Upstate Assistant Media Relations Director
On Thursday afternoon, USC Upstate assistant coach Russell Triplett shook his head in wonder about senior Casey Rivers' career. Triplett, a star shortstop at Clemson University and a former minor leaguer, had a twinkle in his eye when he wondered aloud, "How many guys can say they did what Rivers did?"
Rivers, from Hudson, about halfway between Boston and Worcester, the two biggest cities in Massachusetts, had a collegiate career that began at a junior college while he got his grades in order and will end on Friday as he plays his last game with USC Upstate, which is completing its first year in the Division I Atlantic Sun Conference.
In between, Rivers, known more as `Riverboat' than Casey around the team, spent a season at Division III Worcester State and with the Spartans in their final Division II Peach Belt Conference season, making him the first player in school history to play in the NJCAA, the NCAA Division III, Division II and Division I. In fact, no one can find another story like his.
"Rivers is somebody who has worked for everything that he's got," Upstate head coach Matt Fincher said. "When I think of him, as I go through the years and I remember him, I'm sure his name will come up in regard to work ethic and making your way."
It's certainly been a long road from the Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Mass., and USC Upstate in Spartanburg, S.C., much further than the 800-plus mile journey between the schools. And it even got the attention of a two-time All-Atlantic Coast selection in Triplett.
"I always wanted, from the get-go, to play college baseball at the highest level which is Division I," Rivers said, "and I tried to get there but my grades weren't good enough to get there right away, so I went to a junior college and played there for two years."
At Quinsigamond, Rivers got his grades in order and played two seasons with the college team. It was there he met Mike Colecchi, who played a large role in bringing him to USC Upstate in 2007.
"Our first day of practice is when I met Mike," Rivers said. "We both went out to shortstop and that's where we met. We got there and kind of looked at each other and thought, `Who are you?' because we were competing for the same job. Ever since then, we hit it off and we've been best friends throughout our college career."
In one of the seasons, the team played at the club level, not counting against his NCAA eligibility, and after he finished his sophomore year, he moved on to Worcester State, a Division III school of 5,500 students located in the heart of Massachusetts. Like Quinsigamond, it was just minutes from his home in Hudson.
"When I was in Division III, we went down South to play in Florida and then we came back home and there was still snow on the ground," Rivers said. "We had a domed facility and when we got back from Florida, we had to go back to that. It was hard because you're not outside all year like you are in South Carolina."
The Lancers, who compete in the MASCAC, finished 19-22 overall and 7-7 in their conference, with Rivers seeing time mostly as a defensive replacement or pinch hitter. He got 34 at bats and hit .294 with five runs and three doubles.
Meanwhile, Colecchi, who had transferred to USC Upstate in 2006, hit .325 with nine RBIs, becoming a key outfielder late in the season. At the end of the year, Colecchi talked to Rivers and convinced him that there was a shot to play immediately at Upstate.
"I saw an opportunity to come down and play at Upstate," Rivers said. "Mike (Colecchi) said, `Why don't you come down here?' It was my last shot at playing at a higher level, so I figured I'd give it a shot. I wasn't even thinking about the team making the transition to Division I, I just figured it was a very good Division II team.
"I was a walk-on that just basically showed up."
The only problem was, while Colecchi was convinced that Rivers would make a key contribution to the program, Coach Fincher not only had no idea that Rivers was going to walk-on the team, but wasn't convinced of Rivers' skills, either.
"Coach Fincher said that my skill level wasn't good enough when I got here," Rivers said. "As we went through the fall practice, he said I improved dramatically. I always believed that if you show up every day and work your hardest, good things will happen."
Fincher kept Rivers on the roster and by the midpoint of the season, Fincher had moved Rivers, a middle infielder throughout his career, to the outfield, and all of a sudden, he was earning playing time. He posted seven multiple-hit games in 22 starts, hitting .298 on the year with 15 runs and 12 RBIs. He helped the Spartans fight off some of the best teams in Division II, as Upstate beat 10 ranked teams during the season.
"Last year was probably my best year in collegiate baseball," Rivers said. "We had 34 wins and I'd say that is a feather-in-your cap to win that many games in a season. With the experience I had with those guys, I had a lot of fun playing baseball. Some days you would go to the ballpark and you knew you were going to win. That's a fun feeling when you know you're going to win."
The certainties of winning ended though, when Upstate moved to the Division I level and the Atlantic Sun Conference for the 2008 season. Rivers, meanwhile, became one of the rarest of athletes. Playing collegiately at each level of the NCAA, he left his mark on the Division I level in the first weekend of Atlantic Sun play. Against ETSU, he hit .583 (7-for-12) with six runs, two doubles and three RBIs to pace the Spartans as they took two of three games from the Bucs. He scored five runs and added two RBIs in the doubleheader sweep of the Bucs on March 1 before adding two doubles in the final game of the series.
"I got a chance to play second base," Rivers said, "and I guess it was just one of those days when I felt really good. After the first hit, I thought it could be a good day. After the second hit, it was one of those days that I had a good game. After that, I felt that I was going to get a hit."
The weekend against the Bucs wasn't his only highlight of the year. He has started 38 of the Spartans' 52 games, hitting .288 and scoring 32 runs. He has eight doubles, two triples and 16 RBIs. Four weekends after the ETSU series, he went 7-for-12 in a three-game A-Sun set again, scoring five runs and driving in two against defending A-Sun champion Jacksonville.
"Rivers is somebody who came into the program and improved a good bit," Fincher said. "That's what I'm proudest of. He's worked. He's earned everything he's gotten. He wound up being a good player at this level."
He's helped Upstate to its seventh straight 20-win season and entering today's doubleheader with FGCU, he could help the Spartans to their first conference finish over .500 since the team went 12-6 in the NAIA District Six in 1990.
"It was hard work from day one," Rivers said of his two years at Upstate. "I've had my ups and downs, but I usually manage to get back on my feet and do well here. It was really everything I ever wanted in playing baseball at the collegiate level."