Times are wonderful for Riley Mattingly Parker and her University of Alabama soccer teammates.
The Crimson Tide is 13-1-1 and winners of nine consecutive games. The Crimson Tide is ranked No. 2 in the country, its highest ranking ever, and playing home games in front of large and rowdy crowds. The Crimson Tide is not only beating teams, but they are doing so in a convincing fashion. Only one victory this season has come by one goal.
Parker is the team’s leading scorer with 11 goals, which trails only Tennessee’s Jaida Thomas, who has 12 goals, in the SEC. Parker and teammate Felicia Knox are tied for second in the SEC with 24 points, again trailing Thomas.
On Sunday, the Crimson Tide will play host to No. 7 ranked and three-time reigning SEC regular season champion Arkansas in a game that could very well determine this season’s regular season conference champion.
Times weren’t so wonderful for Parker a year ago. Or were they?
“It was miserable and phenomenal all in the same year,” Parker said.
The miserable part came first. Parker missed the entire 2021 fall season because of a torn ACL she suffered in the first game of the spring portion of the 2020-21 season. The injury occurred on Feb. 19, 2021, in the first half of a 2-0 win over Columbus State.
“I had never been out more than three months from soccer,” Parker said. “I knew I was going to be out for a long time. But, I still thought there was kind of chance of me playing later in [the 2021 fall] season. And then God had other plans and said your role this season is going to be a good teammate and try to be the best leader that you can and have more of a sideline role.”
Before that, though, there was the miserable feeling of rehab. She couldn’t walk without a limp. She had trouble walking up stairs. She couldn’t jump. Her training routine was limited, at best. But she persevered.
“It was a rough time, but God put so many people in my life to help me get through it, to surround me and encourage me and uplift me during that time, so that on the bad days, they weren’t so bad,” Parker said. “I actually was in Alabama by myself the entire summer. I loved going to rehab, not only because I saw it as a chance for me to get better, but that was my human interaction for the day. I would just stay there for like three hours just to talk to people and hang out. I got to create some great relationships with that.”
That was just the start.
“There are so many people that I could credit for coming back better this year,” Parker said. “Jeff Meek, our trainer, he came to the beach with my family so I could stay a few extra days. The dedication from the staff, it was awesome. That gives me some extra motivation this year, because I want to make them proud and show people we have the best rehab staff and coaching staff and teammates. I hope I’m making them proud this season.”
Parker not only came back, but she came back better. In her first 48 games at Alabama, she combined for eight goals, six assists and three game-winning goals. This season, in the first 15 games, she has the 11 goals to go along with two assists and four game-winning goals.
“The great thing about Riley is she just keeps plugging away and plugging away and getting better and better,” said Alabama women's soccer head coach Wes Hart, who is in his eighth season at the helm of the program. “I truly believe she has come back a better player than when she got hurt. I think she’s physically stronger, she looks quicker, she looks more agile, she looks more powerful. I don’t know if it was [the] break from soccer, sometimes it can kind of rejuvenate you a little bit. She looks like a different player right now, one we really hoped and thought we were getting when we recruited her years ago.”
Hart and his staff wanted a great player when they signed Parker out of Flower Mound, Texas. What they got was a good player.
“Riley is an incredible person, an incredible soccer player,” Hart said. “She came to us as a freshman and was one we had a lot of belief in. We knew what we were getting. I think her freshman year, I don’t know if we put unrealistic expectations on her or what, put too much pressure on her, coming in a freshman, or maybe riding her too much in thinking she would turn the program around her freshman year. So, freshman year probably didn’t go as well [as] we would have liked or she would have liked. I think it was a solid freshman year, but I think we were all hoping or expecting more.”
It's all come together this year. She became that great player. And last year’s difficult times certainly has a lot to do with it.
“I’m not going to lie, going through last season, it was rough, it was hard to show up and feel like you were in love with the game every single day,” Parker said. “I see the experience of being injured, the result of that has been I approach every single game as it could be my last. There are only so many games I get to do this with my teammates. It’s a newfound appreciation. I’ve always loved soccer, but I’ve had the chance to re-fall in love with the game. It’s been a special season and it’s been certainly more enjoyable, just because I know I’m not taking any training, any time with my teammates or any game for granted.”
Hints that this could be a special season came pretty quickly. Alabama dropped the third game of the season, a 1-0 setback at Miami, but came back soon after with a home win over No. 18 ranked Clemson (3-0) and a road victory over No. 7 ranked BYU (3-2) in back-to-back games. BYU beat Alabama, 4-1, in an NCAA second-round playoff game last season, and the Cougars went on to play in the national championship game.
“We go to [BYU’s] field, just a year removed [from the tournament loss], and beat them on their field, that’s when it hit for me,” Parker said.
From there it’s been a magical ride. The Crimson Tide played to a tie at Utah three days later and have since ripped off nine consecutive victories. Six of the wins have been by at least three goals. A 2-0 win over fifth-ranked South Carolina opened SEC play. The Tide went to Tennessee, outshot the Volunteers, 29-9, and came out with a 4-2 victory. The one-goal outcome was a 2-1 victory over Georgia.
“There are several times throughout my career where we’re so close to turning it and getting it,” Hart said. “Then we’d fall short, drop a game and kind of lose that momentum. I always believed that if we win, people will come support us. People here in Tuscaloosa, people here at Alabama, it’s no secret, they want to support winners, I don’t care what sport it is. I cannot thank the fans enough, the support they’ve been showing us these past couple months. Without question, they’re helping us win games.”
Alabama will need the support on Sunday against the Razorbacks.
“It’s little bit tricky, right,” Hart said. “You want to treat it like every other game, but, you also know there’s a lot at stake. They’re ranked No. 7 in the country, it will be huge for us with the RPI, to be seeded with a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. The fact is we’re 6-0, they’re 5-1, the winner will likely have the chance of winning the SEC. We just want to keep doing what we’ve been doing. If we do, I think it’s going to be great.”
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