Test day is the middle-school equivalent of adulthood's tax day. It's a necessity, but tends to put folks in a sour mood.

So Chad Williams had a good guess of what a young student wanted to discuss when he saw Manny Rivera approach the seventh-grade Montana history teacher after an exam. Rivera was unhappy with his grade, which was "not so hot," but he wasn't there to make excuses or plead for leniency.

He wanted to retake the test. Not for credit, just to prove to himself he could do better and to guarantee he knew the material.

"That's one of Manny' terrific characteristics: he'll figure out what he's bad at and work at it until it's a strength," Williams remembered.

It's a trait that has served Rivera well in the classroom and on the wrestling mats. Now a Hamilton senior, Rivera is coming off a runner-up State A finish.

And he's determined once again to do better.

***

Manny Rivera has what Williams, his head wrestling coach in both middle and high school, refers to as the traditional wrestler's build.

He's little more than 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with his 170 pounds spread across a sturdy frame. He speaks softly, though with enthusiasm, his dark eyes narrowing when he smiles.

Which he does often.

Manny has always been that kind of kid, his father Rocky Rivera said, humble and good-natured. Rocky grew up wrestling and when his son wanted to give it a try, Rocky was trepidatious when considering how those qualities would mesh with such an intense and physically demanding sport.

"I wasn't sure what he was going to be when he got on the mat, I'm thinking (it may not go well), but when he got out there even at 6 years old that switch hit," recalled Rocky, who is also a Hamilton assistant wrestling coach. "I saw this aggression come out of him.

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"We've got something here."

Rivera took to the laborious sport, later pairing it with an equally physical activity in football during the falls, and has excelled in both. He led all Class A running backs with 1,352 rushing yards and scored 15 touchdowns during his senior football season, harnessing the wave of momentum created from his outstanding junior wrestling campaign.

He reached the championship match of the Western A Divisional tournament before losing to Dillon's Patrick Griffin. Then at the state tournament in Billings last February he won his first three bouts to set up a rematch with Griffin in the finals in front of thousands of fans at the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.

He'd already outdone his own expectations after finishing sixth at state as a sophomore -- where Griffin again ended Rivera's tournament -- and he found himself watching the crowd as much as the other finals matches down on the arena floor.

"You feel small compared to everything else. Lights flashing all over the place; it's a very humbling experience," he said.

Griffin bested Rivera again, an 8-4 decision that the Bronc couldn't erase from his mind. It stayed there throughout the long ride home to the Bitterroot Valley that weekend. It blazed like a light left on as he tried to sleep back in his own bed.

He wanted to be better.

***

Rivera stayed in shape in the offseason, splitting his wrestling schedule between his own workouts and stops at youth program practices to help Williams with the little guys.

He came back stronger this season, his last in a Hamilton singlet, and with fewer holes in his defense. His offense has always been tough, Williams explained.

"He's super fast. He's got a double-leg takedown attack that when he hits it, there's no stopping it," the coach said. "It's super explosive. He'll get you in a pinning combo and it's over."

Griffin is too savvy a wrestler for that, but when the boys met in a state-title rematch at a mixer in Stevensville earlier this month, Rivera turned away the Dillon champion time and time again.

He scored a last-minute takedown to snatch the lead and earn a victory that while fairly minor in the season's grand scheme, cannot be understated.

"That was something I needed for myself, a confidence booster," Rivera said of the 4-3 decision, "and it was just nice getting payback."

He'll have opportunities to get another dose on grander stages soon. Though Griffin's Beavers did not enter the Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic in Missoula this weekend, the tournament in which Hamilton is competing through Saturday, state is right around the corner. The all-class state tournament -- and the end of Rivera's prep career -- is less than a month away.

"I've been coaching for 10-plus years and he's one of those kids that you're really gonna miss," Williams said. "I get emotional thinking about it. Man, I'm not gonna have Manny. Four weeks is all I have left with Manny before he goes off into the real world."

Rivera, a planner by nature, has that part all mapped out, too. He has already worked his way through mountains of paperwork and medical screenings to enroll in the U.S. Marine Corps' delayed entry program. Quickly after graduation this spring he'll ship off to basic training in California on the next step of his military service.

It's a path both his father -- Rocky was active duty Air Force for 4 years before 4 more with the Army National Guard -- and his grandfather took before him.

"I've always wanted to serve my country. I want to go into law enforcement after and that'll definitely help me having the military background," he offered.

He's excited for the abrupt change just a few months away now. Rivera has never been one to shy away from a little extra work.

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