Penn State can breathe a sigh of relief. Kaleigh Riehl is back in the starting lineup.
The sophomore defender from Fairfax Station, Va., was one of five Nittany Lions to take a redshirt last season in order to represent the U.S. at the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea.
Her head coach, Erica Dambach, spoke glowingly of Riehl’s value to the team.
“When you’re as humble and reliable as Kaleigh is, she’s tailor made to be a really special center back. She’s kind of a pessimist by nature in a good way, the way that a defender should be in that she’s always thinking about the worst, always anticipating,” Dambach said. “But the biggest thing is just she’s as reliable as they come — being able to read the play and lead the line.”
As a true freshman in 2015, Riehl started all 27 matches on Penn State’s spectacular run to its first national championship in program history. That year, the Nittany Lion defense posted 15 shutouts, including eight clean sheets in a row to finish the season.
The nation’s No. 10 prospect for her cycle earned Big Ten All-Freshman recognition as well as TopDrawerSoccer Freshman Best XI First Team honors for her efforts. Her father, Mark, played soccer for Virginia from 1975-79, so the game certainly runs in her family.
Riehl believes Raquel Rodríguez, Britt Eckerstrom, and Mallory Weber’s leadership trickled down to a new generation after they graduated.
“I think they did a good job of passing that down so our new captains Britt Basinger and Elizabeth Ball have been able to step right in. They’ve been great leaders and helped us to grow,” Riehl said.
Riehl, a kinesiology major who plans to become a physical therapist, has also taken on a more vocal role during preseason camp. A frequent contributor on the youth national teams, Riehl said she admires Becky Sauerbrunn for how well she reads the game.
“I always look to bring a voice when I’m on the field,” Riehl said. “I think that’s really important in my position to kind of lead the people around me, just a comforting voice knowing I’m supporting people.”
Junior midfielder Marissa Sheva doesn’t downplay the importance of having such a talented defense to take pressure off the Penn State attack.
“It’s very comforting,” Sheva said. “We have so much depth, especially in the back line, and that’s really great knowing that no matter who’s on the field we have a great group of girls behind us.”
Exactly who will make up that starting four is still up in the air, though. Riehl and Ball are almost assured to resume their jobs at center back, while Basinger, Ellie Jean, and Maddie Elliston will battle it out for the two remaining outside spots.
The Nittany Lions open their season Friday at 7 p.m. versus No. 8 BYU, with a large home crowd expected to be on hand for the first sporting event of the 2017-18 school year.
“This is my family here, so I’m really excited to be back with them and playing under the lights on Jeffrey Field. You can’t ask for a better atmosphere,” Riehl said.
The Cougars beat Penn State 3-2 last season, but this year’s Nittany Lions are hungry to prove they’re national title contenders again. Dambach assembled one of college soccer’s toughest non-conference schedules to leave no doubt.
“They’re a great team,” Riehl said of BYU. “They’re gonna come out and be gritty and aggressive. We hope that we can bring that same energy and blue-collar mentality to the game and compete.”