If all had gone according to plan, Haley Riley would be nothing more than an ancillary part of the North Texas soccer team this season.
The sophomore was expected to see a little time in goal at the end of blowouts and push starting goalkeeper Jackie Kerestine, arguably the Mean Green’s most important player.
That plan changed in a flash a few days ago, thrusting Riley into the spotlight.
The way the former Allen standout has handled the situation is a big reason UNT enters a noon game at Oklahoma today with a win over TCU on its resume and a place among the teams receiving votes in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll.
UNT can strengthen its case for a spot in the Top 25 today in a game against the Sooners scheduled to be televised on Fox College Sports.
“Haley has come up big despite not having a lot of experience playing behind Jackie,” UNT coach John Hedlund said. “We have put her in games when they are pretty much over. For Haley to come in and play well last week was a huge bonus for us.”
Riley was thrust into the starting lineup when Kerestine went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee during a loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 1. Losing Kersteine, who was named the Most Outstanding Player in last season’s Sun Belt Conference tournament, was a devastating blow for UNT.
Fortunately, for UNT, Riley was ready to step in, largely because of the work ethic she has become known for during her time with the Mean Green.
“I knew Haley was ready to go,” Kerestine said. “She works super hard — harder than anyone on the team, to be honest.”
Riley has made a seamless transition into UNT’s starting lineup and enters today’s game against Oklahoma riding a wave of momentum following thee straight shutouts. UNT blanked Sam Houston State 3-0 in Riley’s first start, knocked off TCU 2-0 and beat McNeese State 2-0.
UNT has not allowed a goal in 292:11 dating back to the second half of its loss to Virginia Tech, when Riley came on for Kerestine.
“I felt comfortable out there,” Riley said. “I was nervous for the first minute or two, but after that it was natural.”
Riley credited that confidence to the work she put in during the preseason and the support of her teammates.
“It was definitely important for me to stay ready,” Riley said. “I was sad to see Jackie go down, but you want to be ready.
“The girls here are the reason I stayed motivated. They are awesome and so are the coaches. It’s an environment where you want to work hard all the time. I respect them and want to do what I can for my girls.”
Riley is a much different player than Kerestine, who at 6-foot-1 and with a long wing span is able to sit back near the goal and get to nearly any shot that comes her way. Riley is 5-9 and relies more on her quickness.
“We have worked with Haley on her vertical over the summer so that she can be strong in the air,” UNT goalies coach Matt Montayne said. “Haley is a little faster. She can cover more ground, where Jackie is more conservative.”
UNT’s coaches and players say they haven’t had to make too large of an adjustment since Riley has entered the lineup.
The Mean Green has just kept on rolling heading into its showdown with the Sooners, winning its last three games with Riley in goal and showing that all the work she put in to be ready once her time came is paying off.
“Haley is the hardest-working player on this team,” UNT forward Vanessa Ibewuike said. “She is always at the front in fitness training, which you don’t expect from goalies. She is also an amazing person off the field. She is always supportive and tells us what we are doing well and what we can improve on.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.