As the good ones tend to do, Sterlington senior nose tackle Colby Rivera has found another gear since the playoffs started.

As the good ones tend to do, Sterlington senior nose tackle Colby Rivera has found another gear since the playoffs started.

"The playoffs are a different type of football," Rivera said. "Every game could be the last one."

Sterlington coach Lee Doty has noticed the different intensity level.

"Our seniors are realizing it's win or go home and we're getting a lot of out of them," Doty said.

Rivera, in particular, has elevated his game.

"Colby is playing his tail off," Doty said. "Colby has played the best football he's played in the three years I've been here."

The numbers support Doty's claim.

After finishing the regular season with 30 tackles in eight games (he missed the Loyola and Madison Parish games), Rivera has nearly doubled his tackle output in three postseason outings.

"Colby's done a heck of a job in the playoffs," Doty said. "He's defeating blockers, drawing double teams, making tackles, forcing fumbles and recovering fumbles."

Rivera tallied eight tackles, including two for negative yardage, in a 49-0 first round victory over W.L. Cohen, followed by a career-high 12 stops in a 57-56 overtime win over Church Point. Last week, he had five tackles and was involved in a pair of fourth quarter turnovers with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the Panthers' 13-12 quarterfinal victory over Union Parish.

Rivera's fumble recovery at the Farmers' 25 — off of a hit delivered by linebacker Willie Holloway — gave the Panthers a chance to build on their 7-6 lead.

"The ball came out and me and Willie started fighting for it," Rivera said. "We probably looked stupid fighting over the ball like that."

The momentum shifted immediately as Keshawn Brock's 66-yard fumble return on the next play from scrimmage put The U on top 12-7 with 7:53 to go.

Sterlington punted on its next series, but the Farmers had the ball for only one play as linebacker Luke Temple pounced on a fumble caused by Rivera at the plus-33.

"It was crunch time and somebody had to make a play," Rivera said. "I saw him running, put my helmet on the ball, and it came out. When I looked up, Temple had the ball."

Three plays later, on third-and-nine, Layton Rainbolt caught a 32-yard pass from Hayes Crockett for the game-winning touchdown.

Just like last year, the Panthers drew a quarterfinal rematch against a district opponent they had already beaten during the regular season. Richwood dealt the Panthers their only loss last season 15-14 in the rematch. Following up a 31-20 Week 9 win over the Farmers in Farmerville, the Panthers were able to get it done Friday night.

"People have been holding (the Richwood loss) over our head since last year," Rivera said Friday night. "Nobody asked West Monroe about beating a team twice (West Monroe defeated district rival Ruston 34-0 in the Class 5A quarterfinals). We weren't going to let it happen again. We couldn't let it happen again.

"Don't tell us you can't beat a team twice because we just did."

Like their counterparts on the offensive line, interior linemen are often overlooked. Though others get the glory, the outcome of the game is determined up front.

"We're the Trench Mob — me, Justin Fuller, Luke Carmichael and Brice Still," Rivera said of the Panthers' front four. "The game starts with us. If we're having a good night, it's going to be a good night. If we're not having a good night, it's going to be a long night."

Coming off of back-to-back 1-point wins, the road doesn't get any easier for the fourth-seeded Panthers, who travel to No. 1 Iota (13-0) Friday night for the semifinals.

"Colby is playing like we thought he was capable of playing," Doty said. "The flip side of that is as good as he's playing, we need him to crank it up and play that much better this week."

Rivera understands the urgency of the situation.

"We're one step away," Rivera said. "I can taste the (Superdome) turf, but we have to take it week by week."

Rivera says the Panthers' first priority is to contain the Bulldogs' running game.

"They come out in a lot of formations, but when it gets down to it, they are more of a running team," Rivera said. "We have to stop No. 18 (running back Luke Doucet).

A three-year starter in football, Rivera is also a thrower for the track team and has played basketball for the Panthers. When football is over, Rivera has decided to report for soccer rather than basketball.

"I've never played soccer before," said Rivera, who is listed as a goalkeeper. "I just want to try something that would be just for fun."

Rivera plans to continue his football career at the collegiate level before pursuing a coaching career.

"I think I would be a good coach because I know what it takes to win," Rivera said. "I know how to get to know people and get the best out of them."

For now, there's some unfinished business as the Panthers chase their second state championship in three years. As a sophomore, Rivera helped Sterlington defeat Madison Prep 28-27 in the Class 2A state finals for the first state title in program history.

"Once you've been there, you want more," Rivera said. "Most of us started as sophomores, so why can't we go back our senior year? We know what it takes to get there. It's nothing we haven't done before."