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Star striker Rivera inks with SJSU
SIGNING Rivera soccer 1
East Union senior Isela Rivera signs a National Letter of Intent to play soccer at San Jose State. The Signing Day Celebration took place in the schools library. - photo by JAMES BURNS/The Bulletin

Isela Rivera isn’t concerned so much about her place in East Union girls soccer lore, though there have been few as productive as the senior striker.

Rivera sat out most of her junior season after turning the Central Valley high school soccer scene on its head as a freshman and sophomore.

She tallied 54 goals and 38 assists during her first two years, guiding the Lancers to a Valley Oak League championship and back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section playoff appearances.

All of that is well and good, she said during a National Signing Day celebration inside the school library, but it won’t define her legacy on the North Union Road campus. Rivera wants to be remembered as a student-athlete – and more specifically, an older sibling – who took her game to the next level, earning a place at a four-year university.

She made it official on Wednesday afternoon, inking a letter of intent to play soccer at San Jose State University on a partial athletic scholarship.

Rivera, one of three talented sisters, will be the first in her immediate family to attend college. Amid the gold-and-blue balloon arrangements, picture opportunities and fanfare, that fact wasn’t lost on her.

Rivera is taking the steps to ensure she won’t be the last, either.

“It’s a big thing for me. I’ve always dreamt of playing college soccer and eventually maybe going pro,” said Rivera, who also has a younger brother. “Right now, my thing is my siblings need to go to college, too.

“Being the oldest, it is stressful setting the bar. I had to do all these things, e-mail all these coaches. Now that I’ve been done for about a year now, I’ve been focused on getting my second sister (junior Isabella Rivera) going, e-mailing all the coaches and doing all of that.

“This is what I want for them.”

Rivera’s recruitment wasn’t all smooth sailing.

She was originally courted by Jeff Leightman, who stunned the former Valley Oak League MVP with his resignation after six mostly successful seasons.

The Spartans qualified for the Western Athletic Conference Tournament in each of Leightman’s first four seasons and won back-to-back regular season conference championships, but struggled to a 3-14-1 record last spring.

Rivera was to be his saving grace, or so she was told.

Leightman offered the Mountain View-Los Gatos club player a 50-percent scholarship sight unseen, with a promise of more money as the club season got underway. Rivera says she was also promised an opportunity to compete for a starting job at center midfield and forward.

“I don’t like to sit,” she said, “so I couldn’t turn that down. That doesn’t happen very often.”

Leightman was replaced by Laura Hansen, a former associate head coach at the University of Oregon. Hanson kept the university’s commitments to Rivera, who was admittedly stunned by the coaching shakeup.

“Nothing has changed,” Rivera said with a smile equal parts relief and excitement.

“San Jose State was my No. 1 choice. I love the campus; it’s so beautiful. The coaches are amazing. … They play possession, they go to goal, they start from the ball from the back – everything I’m used to as a player.”

Though San Jose State had her heart from the start, the recruiting process was spiced with other suitors. She said the University of Miami and University of Hawaii made her enticing scholarship offers, but being close to family, particularly her sisters Isabella and Ilena, was much more appealing.

There’s a chance the three could share the field for the first time this spring. Isela and Isabella will return to the varsity program – now under the guidance of boys soccer coach Victor Polanco – while freshman Ilena is widely considered the best in the bunch.

 “I just want to enjoy my last season here,” the older Rivera said.

East Union athletic director J.J. Ramirez expects the 5-foot-1 playmaker to pick up where she left off in 2011, the last time Rivera was a full-time player for the Lancers.

“With the ball, she just makes moves that blow peoples’ minds,” he said. “Just a very talented, very clutch soccer player.”