Krystal Rivers, a 24-year-old American opposite from Birmingham, Alabama, posted 29 points in Allianz MTV Stuttgart’s final Champions League pool play match, a 3-1 defeat of Martiza Plovdiv. No other player on the court at the Kolodruma Sport Hall in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, even came close to matching her tally of 21 kills and eight blocks.
With 95 points in the group stage, Rivers ranks eighth among all players in group stage of Champions League, which brings together the top professional teams in Europe. Rivers points total puts her just behind international stars such as Tijana Boskovic of Serbia and ahead of Olympians Kim Hill of Team USA and Yeon-Koung Kim of South Korea, just to name a few.
But seven years ago, when she graduated from Ramsay High School and moved an hour away to attend the University of Alabama, Rivers was not ranked in any list of top recruits in the Class of 2012 and did not have an athletic scholarship waiting for her in Tuscaloosa (though with a 4.48 high school GPA and National Honor Society credentials, she did earn a full academic scholarship). She walked on the team and redshirted the 2012 season.
In 2013, she started at middle blocker and led the Crimson Tide with 435 kills, before being diagnosed with stage III Hodgkin's lymphoma in the offseason. Somehow, even after undergoing chemotherapy that spring, Rivers, by then in remission, once again led the team in kills as a redshirt sophomore in 2014, this time playing opposite, and she earned AVCA Third Team All-America honors.
Around that time, the 5-foot-11 Rivers, who at one point wasn’t even sure she’d ever be good enough to earn a starting spot at Alabama, started thinking about playing professionally. She graduated in 2016, leaving behind new program records for career kills (2,148) and points (2,506) and single season hitting percentage (.404).
Rivers, who is represented by Elite Volley, got her first taste of the professional game in the Philippines’ Premier Volleyball League (PVL), filling in toward the end of the 2017 season for an injured player on the Pocari Sweat Lady Warriors roster. Due to some inter-league drama and transfer difficulty, Rivers wasn’t able to actually take the floor for her new team until the three-match league championship series, but even so, she made her presence felt, earning Best Player of the Game in the third and deciding match of the series.
In her first full professional season, Rivers signed with Beziers in France’s Ligue A. She won another championship, and finished the season as the No. 1 scorer in the entire French league.
“I tried to push to play at a high level that would allow me to score those points,” Rivers said. “ I knew it was very important, especially being an opposite where your job is basically to score points, I knew that I had to score a lot, and I think people saw that and were like, ‘OK, she’s capable of scoring points at this level of volleyball, so we want her on our team.’”
The staff of the team in Stuttgart certainly took notice. In signing with the reigning Bundesliga champs for the 2018-19 season, Rivers joined a roster that includes four other Americans: setter Madi Bugg, outside hitter Sarah Wilhite, and middles Molly McCage and Paige Tapp. She also joined a team slated to compete in the 2018-19 CEV Champions League.
The squad from Stuttgart entered the elite European competition in the second of three qualifier rounds, where it swept Sliedrecht Sport from the Netherlands in both the home and away installments. The third round, however, proved to be a stiffer challenge.
CSM Volei Alba Blaj of Romania shocked Stuttgart on Nov. 7, taking the win in the first leg of the third round in four sets.
Even at that early point in the season, Rivers and her teammates were clear on their goals. They wanted to win the German League and the German Cup. In Champions League, they strove to make it to pool play and then advance to the quarterfinals.
Losing in the qualifier rounds was not in the plan.
“We knew that we had to take our game to another level,” Rivers said. Her team then turned around and swept the Romanian squad in the second leg, keeping its opponent under 20 points in each set and following the performance up with a 15-7 scoreline in the golden set.
“That was like a spark for our season to really get going,” Rivers continued. “There was a lot of emotion in that match and we played pretty well.”
Since then, Stuttgart has rarely lost, and at 19-0, it ranks No. 1 in the Bundesliga standings.
“They built this team to win a championship here [in Germany], so we’ve just kind of had to make sure that we’re focused so that we can live up to that,” Rivers said.
Becoming the first German women’s team to ever advance to the Champions League quarters and on track for another German league championship, Stuttgart has checked off one and looks poised to achieved a second of its three major goals for the season.
But the year to date has not been without disappointments. The biggest one: a straight-set loss to Schwerin in the final of the German Cup.
Literally a foreign concept to most Americans, the cup is a common competition format in European leagues: a high-stakes tournament within the regular league calendar.
“The [cup] final is huge—I think 12,000 people come to watch it, which is crazy,” Rivers said. (For comparison, the attendance record for a home match at Alabama is 2,169, set on Nov. 21, 2014, versus Auburn.) “It’s in a neutral site and we started out at the round of 16 and we played Dresden, Wiesbaden and Aachen, and they are just like other teams in Germany that we see during the normal Bundesliga, but the Cup is just a little bit different. It’s really interesting for me, for all the Americans, honestly, because there’s nothing like it in the U.S., but all the leagues in Europe have a cup, and it’s such a big deal.”
The win over Plovdiv that pushed Stuttgart into the Champions League quarters came just two days after the cup final loss and softened the blow a bit. Advancing to the semis would perhaps do the trick to vanish any lingering disappointment completely.
But to get there, Stuttgart has to vanquish Igor Gorgonzola Novara, which includes American national teamers Lauren Carlini and Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, not to mention 2018 World Championships top scorer Paola Egonu.
“We’re playing Novara and they, obviously they are one of the top teams in the world, they have some of the best players in the world, including Americans Lauren Carlini and Michelle Bartsch, so we know it’s going to be a huge battle,” said Rivers, who just signed with Stuttgart for another two seasons. “They are extremely physical, extremely talented, but we’re just going to go and compete because we are a good team as well.”
Looking back at Rivers’ incredible journey from Alabama walk-on to one of the top scorers in Europe, it’s hard not to think about how high she’ll rise. Will we soon see her competing for World Championships and Olympic medals?
In 2017, after graduating, Rivers spent two weeks in the USA gym and competed in the World University Games.
“I never saw myself in the national team gym, and so when I was first there ... it was overwhelming for sure,” Rivers said.
At the conclusion of those two weeks with the team in 2017, the national team staff told her she needed to see the game better, develop her overall game and get more comfortable on the court.
Then last summer, her stint in Anaheim was longer and she earned a spot on the Pan Am Games roster. And perhaps even more importantly, she started to feel like she belonged.
“After having played a season overseas and working on the things that they had asked me to work on, it was a lot better for me,” Rivers said. “For sure it’s still a high stress environment, you’re putting the best players in the world in a gym and you're practicing and you’re all competing against each other to make a roster. So it’s a lot, but you feel like you’re learning so much. You’re learning a lot about how to be teammates to different people, how to mature and be a leader in those type of environments.
“It’s good for me because I realized that I am capable of being there. I wouldn’t be there if they didn’t ask me to come and it allows me to really push and to see how far I can go as a volleyball player.”
The experience also changed the way she’s thinking about her volleyball career as a whole.
“When I first decided I wanted to play professionally, I just wanted to be in Europe. I wanted to live overseas and experience other cultures and I didn’t really care if I was playing at the highest level,” Rivers said. “And I still really enjoy being able to travel and see other cultures—that’s one of the main reasons that I am here, but now I’m realizing that I can play at a high level that I can compete. I still know that I have a lot of room to grow, but I’m realizing that I’m getting there and that I can strive to play on some of the top teams in the world.”