Efrain Rivers enters Friday's 1A West Regional with a 41-1 record

Efrain Rivera badly wanted to wrestle for Polk County.

Just not as badly as he wanted to participate in track.

That scheduling conflict, presented by the near-constant state of chaos caused in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, cost Rivera a year of participation.

It’s tough to fathom how good he might be with a little more experience.

Rivera already sits at 41-1 this season, and has a chance to rewrite the Polk County record books entering Friday’s 1A West Regional in Robbinsville.

Not bad for a freshman.

“It’s really not a surprise to me,” Rivera said. “I’ve put the work in, day after day. I went to all the tournaments, worked hard, never missed a practice. I’ve always believed I could be good at anything I do. That’s just my mentality.”

Polk County Middle School wrestling coach Jerry Cox didn’t see that mentality at first. He saw a kid he thought could benefit from wrestling, and who could help the team.

“I met Efrain as a sixth grader, and he was just an athletic, fun-loving, always-had-a-smile-on-his-face kid,” Cox said. “I begged him to wrestle that year, but with COVID it didn’t line up with his track schedule. I finally got him out as a seventh grader.”

Even then, though, Rivera still had to wait a while.

“He had some early success, but we had a kid named Brody Wolfe who was a little bit better at the time, so he didn’t see the starting lineup his whole seventh grade year,” Cox said. “He just kept getting better.”

He did that, in part, by embracing his spot out of the starting lineup and training with Wolfe.

“I knew I was behind a two-time conference champion,” Rivera said. “We have a lot in common. We were born on the same day, and we’re kind of like twins. I figured out that when I went with him, I always got better. I caught on really fast.”

Efrain Rivera finished undefeated in his eighth grade season at Polk County Middle, winning a Blue Ridge Conference championship

Really fast, as in his first tournament. The Wolverines wrestled in The Bear, a national event in Gatlinburg. Rivera finished second. He’d been wrestling five weeks.

“You can tell when it clicks with a kid,” Cox said. “We joke that his first 10 matches, he either lost or got in trouble for slamming people. Once he controlled that, it was on.”

Rivera has had a lot of practice focusing only on things he can control. He’s no stranger to the things he can’t.

In 2017, just before Christmas, Rivera lost his brother in an accidental shooting. Quess Kryron Rivera was a sophomore at Boiling Springs High School at the time. Efrain was in elementary school.

“I was at my grandma’s house,” Efrain said. “My mom called and broke the news. I was devastated for about two weeks. I mean, that’s my brother. But I lightened up, because I knew he was in a better place. My family helped me, too.”

Rivera also had an opportunity to leave Polk County after another situation involving his family. He chose to stay.

“I could’ve gone back to Spartanburg,” he said. “But I really like it up here. I fell in love with the school and the area.”

He also fell in love with wrestling. And he shines at it.

“He works super hard,” Cox said. “He’s low to the ground, he makes good leg passes, he takes good shots, he’s quick, he’s explosive. He’s a prototype 106-pounder. He’s got a very high motor, he’s always looking to score, and he can score in multiple ways.

“I think that’s what’s going to prolong his success into the next several years. A lot of guys try an underhook and take a shot. But Efrain might do a bunch of different things. He’s so diverse.”

The ability to be diverse, as much as anything, is what draws Rivera to the sport.

“I like that you can have your own style in wrestling,” he said. “You can assert your dominance on the mat. I like that I can be creative. I don’t always need to control somebody to take him down and score a point. I’m very creative in my matches. I’ve always been a creative person, and I just implemented that in my wrestling style.”

He also works incredibly hard.

“Any time he can find a tournament or a weight class to be filled, he’s game,” Cox said.

That work ethic has continued at the varsity level.

“It’s great,” Polk County varsity coach Thomas Hensley said. “Obviously, he’s very talented. He’s fast. He’s really strong. He’s creative. But he studies and works like crazy. He watches YouTube videos all the time, and then tries to hit those moves in practice. It’s great.”

Efrain Rivera takes pride in the wide range of moves he can use to control an opponent

That keen study and tireless work have paid off. Often, Rivera said he can tell early on how a match is going to go.

“When the match starts, when we’re going to shake hands, I can tell if he’s confident or not,” he said. “When I move my feet, if I’m faster than him, after the first takedown I know I can score points.”

One of the things he has to work the hardest at, Rivera said, is maintaining his spot at 106 pounds. His natural weight is between 110 and 115.

“I drink a jug of water every day,” he said. “It’s tough sometimes, but it’s not too bad. I’ll bulk up in the offseason, and then cut down. I should be going to 113 next season, and I plan to keep working and focusing on the same things – speed, control and dominance.”

What’s the first thing he’s planning as soon as he’s done with this season’s weight restrictions?

“Cereal,” he said with a laugh. “Frosted Flakes, or Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”

There’s more work to do first, though.

“My hope is to win state,” Rivera said. “My one loss is to the guy that I’ll probably see in the state final. I learned a lot. I learned that everything isn’t handed to you.”

Hensley said his goals for Rivera are the same.

“All of his goals are my goals for him,” Hensley said. “It’s all what he wants to do. And I want to see him continuously getting better, improving, doing well, and enjoying the sport. He’s just a freshman. He’s going to keep getting better and the things he does now are going to keep helping him in the future.”

Cox said he’s happy to see the sport rewarding Rivera.

“Taking a kid like Efrain who probably wasn’t thinking much about college or sports and showing him wrestling, taking him to a college campus and showing him that experience and what schools offer, that’s been something neat,” he said. “You see a kid change his outlook and what he expects from life. And he’s done all the work.

“I like to tell him that he’s exhausting his opportunities. In practice, in tournaments, whatever it is, he’s going to get the most out of it.”