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Stepping Up

Erin Riley has always been full of promise when it comes to soccer.

It’s what allowed her to earn a spot on the varsity team as a freshman, and what has carried her through in the years since.

This season, however, that promise has been fulfilled and evolved into consistent production on the pitch — and the Panthers are reaping the rewards of her hard work.

With a veteran, talent-rich squad in full support, Riley has dialed it up a notch for her senior season and enters Saturday’s Southwest Conference girls soccer match with Willamette with a team-best six assists to go with five goals.

“My motivation this year is definitely a lot higher, working from my freshman year to now on varsity,” said the 17-year-old wing/forward. “I know this is my year to come out and play my hardest and give it my all so hopefully we can go somewhere with it.”

Where the Panthers (10-1, 8-0 SWC) have gone thus far is to a second straight conference title, which they can secure outright on Saturday with at least a tie against second-place Willamette (7-3-1, 5-2) in their final home game of the regular season.

Last year, South Medford earned a share of a conference title for the first time since 2003 when it tied North Medford for top honors.

“It’s super exciting but even our coaches were telling us that they seem more excited about it than we do,” Riley said of repeating as conference champion. “But we already shared it last year and really wanted it this year, too, but our main focus is on the playoffs. We’re just hoping to keep building all the way through the playoffs this year. Still, it’s really cool just to see where we started from my freshman year with new coaching and how we’ve evolved, it’s awesome.”

The same is true of Riley herself, according to South Medford head coach Chris Hollewijn.

“Erin’s a really hard worker and always had a ton of potential,” said Hollewijn. “Over the first two years she was on the team you could see it in glimpses in practices and games, but this year the consistency has been there game in and game out. She’s contributing in a lot of different ways and, for us, it’s been rewarding to see because we’ve always had that belief in what she could do and it’s exciting to see her realizing that promise.”

Making things easier, according to Riley, is the camaraderie of a team that has largely played together for three seasons now. Joining Riley on the varsity as freshmen were twins Desiree and Larissa Lakin and Natalie Davis, then that group was bolstered a year later by the addition of then-freshmen Montana Logue, Franny Gomez, McKenzie Kapp and Sara Smith as well as Class of 2015 leaders like Brittany Jensen, Hannah Kapple and Raney Brooks.

“Everytime we’re out there it’s challenging but it’s also so easy because our team works so well together,” said Riley, who stands 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds. “We’ve been together for quite a long time and our chemistry kind of builds and we just kind of know what each other can handle and our positioning. It’s really nice to have the team chemistry that we have.”

With Gomez, who scored 12 goals last year, missing this season due to a torn anterior-cruciate ligament, the opportunity was there for someone to step up and take some pressure off Jensen — who leads the team with nine goals — when it came to creating scoring opportunities. Junior Haylie Durant was instrumental in that one year ago with 11 assists but has been slowed by her own nagging injuries, so having Riley seize the moment has been instrumental this fall.

“She’s very competitive and brings a really strong attitude out to the field,” said Hollewijn. “Every once in a while she blows your hair back, like, oh my gosh, how did she just score that goal there.”

Hollewijn said the biggest difference in Riley this season has been in her ability to make quicker decisions and pull the trigger on shots or passes earlier than in previous seasons.

“She’s had a quicker release to her shots and the same thing with her passing,” he said. “She sets up better and that’s led to a higher productivity.”

Another element of Riley’s game that has really taken flight is her constant desire to make something happen, be it on the offensive or defensive side.

“She finds ways to get involved,” said Hollewijn. “She plays forward and we move her around the front line a decent amount but whichever position she’s in, she finds a way to get involved. Sometimes she has to drop back and defend more than she normally would but she still finds ways to get involved and make things happen from there.”

“Erin just finds ways to get into dangerous areas of the field,” he added. “Her movement off the ball is pretty good and she sets herself up well to go win a ball.”

For Riley, soccer has always been her passion and she revels in the adrenaline rush she gets while playing as well as the team principles required to be successful.

“I just try to play my hardest and best when I’m out there,” she said. “Adjusting to the style of game you’re in is really important, but what I tell my team is if we’re working and hitting them the hardest and first at winning every ball, then they have to adjust to how we’re playing.”

Ever since suffering a 7-2 loss at Bend in their season opener, the Panthers have definitely forced other teams to adjust to their play. Since that time, South Medford has won 10 straight games — securing shutouts in seven and limiting opponents to one goal in the three others.

“It’s been like the best year so far for me with everyone getting along so well on the team and our connection and the success we’re having,” said Riley. “It’s been amazing and I don’t want it to end. Everyone’s been dreading that Saturday’s our senior night because that means we’re running out of time, but we’re trying to make the most of it.”

And that’s a promise.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

South Medford senior Erin Riley leads the Panthers with six assists and has added five goals. South has clinched at least a share of the Southwest Conference title for the second straight season. MAIL TRIBUNE / JAMIE LUSCH