Rivera learned on the job, then thrived in goal for state champion Wildcats

Old Lyme goalie Emily Rivera leaps to deflect the ball out of the penalty area after a Holy Cross corner kick during Saturday's CIAC Class S state championship girls' soccer game at Middletown High School. Rivera, a senior who never played in the goal until this season, made three saves to help the Wildcats win their third straight title with a 2-1 double overtime win. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Old Lyme goalie Emily Rivera leaps to deflect the ball out of the penalty area after a Holy Cross corner kick during Saturday's CIAC Class S state championship girls' soccer game at Middletown High School. Rivera, a senior who never played in the goal until this season, made three saves to help the Wildcats win their third straight title with a 2-1 double overtime win. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Middletown — She first became a member of the Old Lyme High School girls' soccer team's vaunted Class of 2018, the one which would go on to win three state Class S state championships, when she moved here from Alaska prior to her sophomore year.

Emily Rivera earned the nickname “Alaska” from her teammates and was a reserve player the last two seasons as the Wildcats piled up the victories.

She also plays basketball and lacrosse.

She had already earned her spot as a Wildcat.

And then Saturday, Rivera, top-seeded Old Lyme's starting goalie in a 2-1, double-overtime victory over No. 2 Holy Cross in the Class S championship game at Middletown High School, achieved something so special, she wept.

“Honestly, I don't know,” Rivera said, asked why she was crying. “These past two years that we won the state championship, it still felt great to do it. But to be on the field and have an impact on my team … it's been great.”

Perhaps the best part of the story is what Rivera went through to be on the field.

She learned to play goalie.

Old Lyme had an opening at the position to start the season. Under the guidance of goalie coach Jeremy Kiefer, an Old Lyme grad himself, Rivera not only filled the role, she did so with distinction.

She finished the season with 16 shutouts. It took her nine games to give up a goal.

To start Saturday's final, Holy Cross hit a ball off the crossbar, with the ball falling into the penalty area. Before the Crusaders could get another shot off, however, Rivera fell safely on the ball. She finished with three saves, allowing the only Holy Cross goal on a penalty kick.

She learned the position and learned it well.

“I feel like she belongs with us,” Old Lyme senior midfielder Maddie Ouellette said. “We wouldn't be here without her, no doubt. Her perseverance is incredible. She knows how to get in there, get it out.”

“Jeremy had been training her a week, a week and a half and I said, 'How's Emily doing?'” Old Lyme coach Paul Gleason said. “He said, 'She's it. She's got it all.'”

Rivera is the daughter of Coast Guard Academy Commandant of Cadets Capt. Melissa Rivera, the former commanding officer at Air Station Kodiak, Alaska. A 1991 graduate of the academy, Melissa Rivera earned her wings as a Coast Guard aviator in 1995 and went on to win three Meritorious Service Medals, two Air Medals, two Coast Guard Achievement Medals and an Army Achievement Medal.

Emily is in the midst of filling out her application to the U.S. Air Force Academy, where she hopes to major in aeronautical engineering and also become a pilot.

She joins Ouellette, two-time all-state midfielder Keelin Hurtt, defenders Julia Smith and Maddie Zrenda and Bianca Tinnerello as the Old Lyme girls' soccer team's outgoing seniors.

It was Old Lyme athletic director Hilda Heck who gave Rivera a pep talk before her final career game Saturday. Heck, borrowing the analogy from a friend of hers, told the 5-foot-4 goalie to “be a giraffe.” “Stand tall. Don't be afraid to stick your neck out. Be head and shoulders above the rest. Keep your chin up.”

“It's been hard, too, to be honest,” Rivera said of the pressure that serving as goalkeeper brings. “I didn't let in a goal the first nine games. When I did, it was hard for me to bounce back, like, 'What do I do?' These ladies are good at picking me up.

“When I found out our goalie was gone, I thought, 'I do play basketball. I can jump.' When I first came into it, I was a little bit timid, but I got more confident in my skills and my sliding abilities. Jeremy literally taught me everything I know.

“We're all like a family, the coaches, too. … I went to a soccer clinic during the summer before I started here and the first person I met was Maddie Z. I was so welcomed. They were so kind. I feel like I've been here the whole time.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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