GVSU freshman breaks out in first round of NCAA tournament

GVL / Kevin Sielaff -  Samantha Riga (22) pushes the ball up field. The Lakers defeat the Bulldogs with a final score of 2-0 Oct. 30 in Allendale. Grand Valley will advance to the GLIAC tournament starting Nov. 3.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Samantha Riga (22) pushes the ball up field. The Lakers defeat the Bulldogs with a final score of 2-0 Oct. 30 in Allendale. Grand Valley will advance to the GLIAC tournament starting Nov. 3.

Mason Tronsor

The 2015 NCAA Division II women’s soccer tournament is underway for the Grand Valley State Lakers. The team played its first match of the tournament on Nov. 15 and won 6-0 over Quincy.

The tournament is usually a time for a team’s seniors to take on advanced responsibility and push their crew down the playoff road. In this case however, the Lakers were led by an underclassman to start the NCAA playoffs.

Playing on a big stage in Division II women’s soccer, GVSU freshman Samantha Riga was given the starting nod in Sunday’s tournament bout. Prior to the match, Riga started in eight of the 20 matches this season. In all eight, she did not score a goal.

That all changed when the bright lights turned on at tournament time.

Riga opened the match with a hustle and effort-laden first goal. After Marti Corby directed a shot at the Quincy goalkeeper, the ball squirted loose in front the net. Riga was about 10 feet away, but once she saw the loose ball, she glided toward it and knocked it into the back of the net.

Riga wasn’t done there. Two minutes later, she was back at it again, showcasing her talent. She received a through ball from a teammate and, from about 20 yards out, blasted a ball toward the keeper. Riga’s shot grazed the keeper’s fingertips and sailed across the goal line.

Her two goals in three minutes gave the Lakers a lead they would never surrender.

Freshmen have an impact on the game across all college sports, but Riga’s performance on the playoff stage stood out.

Riga’s star-caliber play dates back to high school when she broke out her junior year. During her junior season at Ladywood High School, she recorded 21 goals and tallied 10 assists. She was named to the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association Division II All-State First Team. Riga was also named All-District twice and to the MLive Dream Team. Everything was going smoothly, until an injury her senior season ended her playing days as a high school standout.

This setback did not slow down the Plymouth, Michigan native. She worked hard to get back onto the pitch. At the end of her high school career, she decided to come play for GVSU and head coach Jeff Hosler. Hosler knew about the injury when recruiting her, but couldn’t disregard her talent.

“Her first training session was late in our preseason,” Hosler said. “She had a lot of work to do because of the injury. She has come a long way. She’s gained more confidence now. She’s not as much deferring to others, but to be a playmaker.”

Riga returned to the field by the time the 2015 campaign kicked off for GVSU. She started five of the first seven matches of the season. During that span, she did not tally a goal, but did record five assists.

“The intensity is always high,” Riga said. “You’re always giving it your all.”

One of her five assists was to fellow freshman Tara Lierman. Lierman, Riga’s roommate, visited GVSU the same time Riga did. Since then, the connection has been as unstoppable as Riga’s 20-yard rocket.

“We talked all throughout the summer,” Lierman said. “I had never played with her before and had never seen her play. Seeing her get some big minutes and some big goals is a really cool thing to experience.”

Riga has now become a viable scoring threat for GVSU, scoring nine goals and dishing out five assists this season. She was also named to the All-GLIAC Tournament Team.

Now Riga and the Lakers have their eyes and dreams set on a possible third straight national championship. If GVSU continues to receive contributions from younger players like Riga, it will be well-prepared to make another deep tournament run.

Through all the ups and downs, Riga has stayed composed, even when the lights continue to shine on her.