It was a few years ago that Justin Riley figured everything out.
Now a senior at Lawrence High, Riley was 14 when he began spending his offseasons playing club soccer in the Kansas City area, his enthusiasm for the sport providing enough fuel to keep him going year-round.
Soon, he discovered his trips back and forth between his hometown and the metro area would be even more fruitful if he could land a spot on the roster of one program in particular. Riley had played against the Sporting Blue Valley soccer club and watched from afar as the team contended for and won state cups every year. As a sophomore, Riley secured a tryout with SBV. The next night he accepted an offer to join the team.
“That was probably the biggest turning point in my soccer career,” Riley said.
Quite a statement from the LHS midfielder, considering he didn’t get to play a full club season for his 16-and-under Sporting Blue Valley team that year. During the final practice leading up to a showcase in Memphis, Riley tore the medial meniscus in his right knee and had to miss the next four months. Still, he quickly learned his club soccer experience would make him a better player.
“The immediate difference from playing (high school soccer) is every day at practice you have to go as hard as you can,” Riley said, “because anybody is capable of taking your spot.”
Riley’s knee had mended in time for the Lions’ 2011 season, and the co-captain started every game as Lawrence went 8-8-3 and won a regional championship. The day after the Lions got knocked out of the playoffs, he returned to SBV, this time for a full schedule that included fall showcases, indoor futsal in the winter and even more games and tournaments through the spring and summer. Sporting Blue Valley coach Dustin Ottesen moved the LHS midfielder to outside forward, and Riley became one of the team’s leading scorers.
“I used him on the outside,” Ottesen said, “because it gave him more freedom to take defenders and use his attacking ability. He also does a very good job of crossing the ball and is a very good shooter of the ball.”
The lengthy Sporting season wrapped up a couple weeks back. Riley and his teammates won the Kansas State Cup and finished 8-2-2 in their National Premiere League, which featured the best club teams in the region.
In the past eight months, Riley traveled with SBV for games in St. Louis, North Carolina, Illinois and Michigan. He was constantly playing soccer. Evening practices ate up his free time, too, often limiting his chances to hang out with his friends.
“If you really want to play soccer, this is what you have to do,” Riley said.
The constant grind took a toll on his body. Riley spent a lot of time visiting his physical therapist and had a procedure done on the outside of his right knee (an aftereffect of his meniscus injury). He endured all of it gladly, in his pursuit of becoming a better player.
LHS boys soccer coach Mike Murphy expects the Lions to benefit from Riley’s commitment when their season starts this fall. The coach said he will continue to play Riley in the midfield and he loves how well the senior uses both of his feet to create shots for his team.
“He’s such a threat that you have to account for him,” Murphy said, “and that opens things up for other players.”
Playing club soccer, the Lions coach added, has given Riley a high level of confidence that trickles down to his teammates.
“They feel like there’s nobody we can’t compete with,” Murphy said.
Lawrence will have seven returning starters this season, with Parker Davies, Gavin Fischer, Connor Henrichs, Robert Lyan, Dalen Reed, Johannes Reiber and Riley leading its core group. Murphy expects it to be the strongest starting lineup in his three years at LHS.
After playing at the club level, where opponents and teammates seemingly are always thinking two steps ahead — “Your first touch is a lot more crucial at the higher club level than in high school,” Riley said — he hopes to capitalize on his experience while suiting up for LHS and playing in the Sunflower League.
That’s exactly what his Sporting Blue Valley coach expects, too.
“I think Justin has a chance,” Ottesen said, “to be as good as anyone in the conference this year.”