Baseball becomes language of choice for Panthers player

05/26/2014 12:00 AM

05/23/2014 12:56 PM

Moving to a new city during the high school years can be a difficult transition. Moving to a new country, with a new language to master, in high school can be simply overwhelming.

Unless you have something in common with your new schoolmates, it can be quite easy to withdraw and not express yourself.

For Kenniel Rivera-Gonzalez, arriving at Fossil Ridge at the midterm of his sophomore year from Puerto Rico was quite an adjustment. But the game of baseball was his universal language in order to connect with his new teammates, as he wasn’t very proficient with English.

The infielder and pitcher struggled in his first few months, but has since completed an outstanding season for the Panthers, who were able to go two games deep into the playoffs this season.

“When I first got here, I could understand what people were saying better than I could speak it,” Rivera said of learning English. “How do I express myself to whoever I was talking to in making my own ideas known? I had to follow along,” he said.

Rivera said he was really into baseball even before he arrived at Fossil Ridge, but credits his teammates and coaches for making him feel comfortable.

He was the right person at the right time, for the Panthers, too.

“He came in at just the right time,” said Fossil Ridge head coach Doug Dulany. “He became the missing piece for us at that time,” Dulany said. “We were needing an infielder and pitching support.”

“I thought they had a good team when I got here,” Rivera said, thinking he was not a missing piece to top district team.

Rivera also gives credit to the district’s ESL program to help him pick up English. He also gives much credit to his focus on baseball due to the high level of competition on the team beginning in his sophomore year.

“We had players like Sheldon Neuse and another good shortstop,” Rivera said. Neuse was a standout player for Ridge who now plays for the University of Oklahoma.

Rivera said his sophomore year may have been his strongest. He recalled his batting average was close to .400. He finished this season, he said, hitting about .360.

Still, competing in a difficult baseball district, the toughest opponent was the language barrier.

“Communicating was the toughest,” he said. “You’re trying to say something and you can’t.

“I had help from other people and my teammates,” Rivera continued, noting that fellow Panthers tried to learn how to cheer and chatter in Spanish. “They wanted to be able to say things like ‘you can’t hit the ball’ in the Spanish,” Rivera said.

Now, Rivera has mixed emotions about what lies ahead for him as he prepares for playing at Navarro College next year.

“I’m both sad and excited my senior year is over,” he said. “I have to leave my team and go meet a new team. I’ve enjoyed having so much time here. It was fun. It’s also exciting for finding out the new things ahead.”

Rivera knows many Puerto Rican players have made their way to success in baseball in the U.S., including his favorite role model, Carlos Beltran.

“Baseball is as popular in Puerto Rico as it is here,” he said. “But this is a big country.”

Going back to Puerto Rico is something Rivera has a desire to do someday. “But, this is home now,” he said.

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