As a referee for more than 300 professional boxing matches worldwide, Rafael Ramos has seen fighters climb up from the mat and refuse to have the towel thrown in.
He’s seen it as the third man in the ring in some of the sport’s epic world-title bouts, like Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Juan Diaz in 2009’s “Fight of the Year.”
And he’s seen the same competitiveness in a golf game, the one possessed by his niece, Johany Rivera.
“The best thing Johany has is that, no matter how bad a hole goes,” Ramos said, “she does not get upset. She keeps a good attitude.”
Rivera, 17, will finish her senior season this year at Smithson Valley High School. Earlier this year she signed a letter of intent to start her college career at St. Edward’s in Austin in the fall. She’s expected to be a part of a Hilltoppers team that finished fourth in the NCAA Division II championship last season.
St. Ed’s coach Jennifer McNeil indicated it was more than results that sold Rivera.
In September, Rivera won the STPGA Junior Tour event at her home course at River Crossing with a score of 71. She also won her high school district individual championship as a freshman, was second in the high school regional tournament last year while Smithson Valley would go on to a fourth-place team finish at the state’s UIL tournament.
She mentors at The First Tee of Greater San Antonio, at her local YMCA and church, and she serves on a superintendent advisory board at Smithson Valley. She’s working on acquiring a third language, French, to add to English and Spanish.
Her golf game is almost 10 years in the making, a product that sparked when she was taken to The First Tee at San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park as an 8-year-old sidekick to her sister. Her parents, Jose and Luz Rivera, took the kids out for a session, and the golden moment of getting hooked to the game came quickly.
“I found out I could be good at this in the very beginning,” Rivera said. “I was really good hitting off the tee.”
She stuck with the program, and over time it led to more notice with her tee shots when she played as the junior partner on a team with Bob Gilder in the Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach in September.
“She absolutely killed the tee ball,” Gilder said. “She’s not afraid to swing at it, and still be able to hit it straight.”
Gilder, a six-time winner in his days on the PGA Tour with 10 victories as a Champions Tour member, enjoyed Pebble Beach so much with Rivera that he snuck in a round at River Crossing with her and her uncle Rafael Ramos in the days leading up to the AT&T Championship last year.
Gilder noticed something more than her driver.
“She’s a really nice person,” Gilder said, “but you can see underneath she’s clearly got that competitive spirit. I came away totally, totally impressed.”
Rivera (her friends often call her Jo-Jo) also had talks with Trinity, St. Mary’s and Baylor before signing with St. Ed’s. She’s considering studying kinesiology, and she said she wanted a college experience that was close to what she’s enjoyed at the Smithson Valley on a team coached by Jason Pape.
“We, all the players on our team at Smithson Valley, make each other better,” Rivera said. “And I love that team atmosphere at St. Edward’s. I wanted a close team, like what we have now.”
So she’s ready to answer the bell, her fight-referee uncle believes. He credits her parents for getting her this far. But he won’t let her reputation with the driver go unchallenged – sort of.
“She can’t out-drive me,” Ramos said. “But,” he paused, “she can out-play me.”