When Bridget Rieken got the word she was making her first college start, at center back as a true freshman, against No. 2 Stanford in early October, “It was kind of a shock,” the Washington State women’s soccer player recalled.
“I’m kind of getting thrown in there,” the former Lake City High star recalled Wednesday, in a phone interview from Columbia, S.C.
Stanford thumped the Cougars 5-0 in that game in Stanford, Calif., but Rieken realized from that game that she could indeed play at the Division I level.
“I belong here; I can do it,” she said.
Rieken has been one of two starting center backs ever since for the Cougars, who are in the midst of an unprecedented run. WSU (15-6-1) has advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA women’s soccer tournament for the first time in school history, and plays South Carolina (19-1-3) on Friday at 3 p.m. PST at Stone Stadium in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina is seeded No. 2 on WSU’s half of the bracket.
The winner advances to the College Cup next weekend in Santa Clara, Calif.
“She’s come in ready,” fifth-year WSU coach Todd Schulenberger said. “But that center back position is like a goalkeeper. In the Pac-12, you’ve got to make sure you’re ready. We knew she was about to be ready. She didn’t do anything wrong coming in. We were just getting her a little bit of maturity and letting her earn her dues. And she’s done that, she’s run with it, and her first start was against Stanford, so she’s seen it all now. So, we’re excited for her — great young lady, really coachable. She plays physically with a gift, and she’s a big, strong athletic frame that will fit nicely in this next match.”
RIEKEN HAS played in 17 games with the Cougars this season, starting the last 13. She has two assists. As a center back at Lake City, she was more of a goal scorer.
“In high school, I could dribble around people, and I didn’t have to stay in my position as much because I could get back faster than everyone else,” the 6-foot Rieken said. “I’m not one in college to have the ball all the time. I win it and I give it to someone who takes it up the field now.”
Center backs are part of the last line of defense, playing in front of the goal.
“I kinda like being center back, and I’ve always thrived in a role that doesn’t necessarily get a ton of attention,” she said.
In addition to communicating with the other players on the field, Rieken said her role with the Cougars is “saving goals, clearing the ball and getting it forward to our front line so they can do their job and score goals.”
At Lake City, Rieken helped the Timberwolves qualify for state in each of her four seasons. Lake City won a state title in 2016, was second in ’15 and third in ’18.
Rieken committed to WSU as a sophomore.
“When I got recruited here they wanted me to be a holding mid(fielder), but since I got here I’ve been playing center back,” she said. “I didn’t play holding mid that often (growing up), so it wasn’t that big of a change (going to center back).”
She said she was prepared to embrace whatever role she was given this season. She got her first start when one of the center backs was unable to play against Stanford. When that player returned, the other center back was moved to holding mid.
Rieken’s “welcome to college soccer” moment came early in Pulllman.
“The first week of training it hit me — ‘Whoa, this isn’t Idaho soccer anymore, we’re in the big leagues now.’” she recalled. “You go to training every day and every single person is fighting for a spot. There’s not one day there isn’t competition. You have to fight for your spot every day. I wasn’t used to all the other girls being as into it as I am.”
Adjusting to the speed of the college game was the biggest part of her learning curve from high school to college soccer.
“That (making the transition from high school to college soccer) was probably the big question mark,” Shulenberger said. “Because in fairness, where we all live, it’s not the most competitive youth programs in the country. They do great for what they have, but it’s not like living in L.A., where you’re playing against some of the best players every day. That was the question coming in — we knew she had it, but how long was it going to take her to compete against the best every day, not only on our team but across the country? She’s obviously proven she can handle it.”
Rieken also played basketball and ran track at Lake City. She helped the T-Wolves qualify for state three times in basketball.
“I’m always a multi-sport coach, and I love kids that play other sports,” Schulenberger said. “She’s a great competitor, she’s a great absorber of learning, which will make her a better player.
“She was, quite honestly, a late bloomer, and nobody really knew about her.”
Other than WSU, apparently.
The Cougs are in the NCAAs for the third straight season. They reached the third round in 2017, and the second round last year.
LAST FRIDAY, WSU upset No. 3 seed Virginia 3-2 on its home field in Charlottesville, Va. Two days later, the Cougars handled West Virginia 3-0. Rather than return to Pullman, the Cougars remained in the south, so they haven’t been home in more than a week. The team traveled from Charlottesville to Columbia on Monday, and has been training there and recovering since then.
“We miss a lot of school,” Rieken said, “so when we’re on the road we have study time, we have to make sure we stay on top of our schoolwork.”
Especially with finals coming up in a couple of weeks.
“We’re in our rooms most of the time, getting our assignments done and trying to get caught up and making sure we don’t fall behind,” she said.
The not-so-glamorous life of the student-athlete. But she’s not complaining.
Counting her club soccer days, Rieken has spent many Thanksgivings away from home, away from family.
But this year, her family — dad, Lee; mom, Tina and older brother, Tyler — have joined her on the road for this historic run.
“It makes the experience a little more real, because my family is here to watch me, watch us make history, and I just want to make them proud,” Rieken said. “We weren’t expected to get past Virginia (last week). We’re going to keep proving people wrong, and keep winning.”
Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.