For Winthrop volleyball, it all starts with the smallest player on the floor.
At 5-4, freshman libero Janice Rivera is small in stature, but don't be fooled. She has toughness, grit and stops at nothing to return a serve, dig out an attack, or give her team a chance to set up for a kill.
Rivera and the Eagles take on High Point at 7 p.m. today at the Winthrop Coliseum.
She learned to play the game in her native Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and calls her style "reckless," a style that leaves its marks.
She is playing this season with a fractured pinky. Her right thumb is bandaged at practices. The back of one hand is bruised where a teammate stepped on it.
"That's how the game is played in Puerto Rico. Anything to keep the ball up. You have to love the game to play the position," Rivera said after a recent practice.
Winthrop coach Sally Polhamus said recovery time for hand injuries is exaggerated in volleyball.
"We usually carry injuries for the entire season. We have contact with the floor, the ball and other people. Janice has pushed through and has a high tolerance for pain," Polhamus said.
Libero, a designated back-row player, intended to be used as a ball-control specialist, is a demanding position.
Rivera had her doubts about being able to play at the college level. She never met Pohai Nu'uhiwa, Winthrop's libero the previous two years, but the video she saw of her left quite an impression.
Nu'uhiwa set school single-season records for digs both years. Rivera felt the pressure coming.
"I still think I feel the pressure to this day. I came here trying to make an impression and get on the floor," Rivera said.
Polhamus saw the tangibles in Rivera when she recruited her.
"I knew (Rivera) had the tools. It was just a matter of her coming in and working hard to earn playing time," Polhamus said. "She has done that and she continues to work hard."
After 25 matches, Rivera ranks second in the Big South Conference in digs per game at 4.53. She is the only freshman among the top 10.
Rivera has 412 digs going into tonight's match. She has moved ahead of Amy Coccia (2002) into ninth-place on Winthrop's single season list in that category and has four regular season matches and the conference tournament remaining.
Rivera has been named Big South libero of the week twice this season. Only UNC Asheville's Raquel Miotto has won more.
"She has a passion for the game and a great understanding of how the game is played," Polhamus said. "Everyone is making strides to be an effective player on this team. We are working on being more and more consistent. Janice is definitely developing to take on a leadership role."
Winthrop lost at High Point, 3-1, on Oct. 10. The Eagles are fourth in the conference with a 6-6 record.
High Point comes in with an 11-2 mark and is in second behind Liberty (11-1). The Panthers' two losses have come in the last two weeks.
They started the year 9-0 in the conference, but lost to UNC Asheville on Oct. 25 and last Saturday at Coastal Carolina.
"High Point is a very strong team with a strong system. We have to disrupt their system," Polhamus said.