Favorite athlete: Lauren Crandall
Favorite team: Maryland
Favorite memory competing in sports: Going to Ireland this spring with the U.S. U-19 National team and beating CB West my junior year
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that happened while competing in sports: When I tripped on my stick while dribbling down the field.
Music on mobile device: Pandora and Spotify
Future plans: Complete a degree at the University of Maryland and play field hockey.
Words to live by: “The difference between the possible and the impossible lies in a person’s determination.”
One goal before turning 30: Have a successful job
One thing people don’t know about me: I have a necklace obsession, and my favorite color is purple!
By Mary Jane Souder
Riley Donnelly is a game changer on the hockey field. The recent Central Bucks East graduate surpassed the elusive 100-goal milestone to cap a stellar four-year varsity career, but scoring goals is just a part of what sets her apart.
“She’s a difference maker, for sure,” former East coach Michelle Finegan said. “She can do anything, play any position. She is aware of the opponents that are the best, and she is able to shut them down. She’s also able to get around them. She’s a multi-talented athlete. She’s one of a kind.”
High praise but hardly surprising for a first team NFCA All-American who this spring travelled to Ireland with the U.S. U-19 National Team. Donnelly, who will be taking her talents to perennial national power Maryland this fall, knows what it feels like to be at the top of her sport.
The recent East graduate also knew the heartbreak of coming close but falling just short in her quest for a coveted spot on the national team, a goal of Donnelly’s for almost as long as she can remember.
“Stepping on the field I knew I was as good as these girls, but it was so intimidating just because there are people standing there staring at you, watching you play,” she said. “It was just so hard – you’d receive the ball and normally you could receive it so easily and you’d bobble it.
“Just stuff that you normally do instinctively – you have to think about it, so I think once you realize you don’t have to think as much it becomes easier. I feel like I thought too much. Once I realized you just have to play and not think, then it became a lot easier for me.”
It’s winning that personal battle that made her selection to this year’s squad so rewarding.
“It’s something I’ve been working toward for a really, really long time,” Donnelly said. “But for a really long time, I had so much nerves surrounding it.
“I think I finally settled in a little bit, and since then, I’ve been able to play more confidently, and I think all the hard work that’s been there has been paying off. It was kind of like the culmination of everything I have been working towards. It was really exciting.”
For all her success, Donnelly remains a team-first player.
“She was always humble, always a hard worker,” said Finegan, who coached Donnelly since her early years on her FSC club squad. “Riley was somebody who the team and coaching staff counted on for a lot of pressure situation goals.
“She was the kind of player – when a game needed to be won, she was the one who would take it down the field and put it away. It wasn’t ever a selfish thing – it was ‘My team needs me to do this and I’m going to do it.’”
Donnelly came by her love of sports honestly. Her father, John Donnelly, played football at the University of New Hampshire and is the varsity coach at East while her mother, Mindy, excelled in field hockey at Lehigh and was an assistant at East.
If there was pressure to compete in sports, Donnelly says she never felt it.
“I always loved it so much,” she said. “I just had so much enjoyment doing it. I guess I was exposed to it at such a young age when I didn’t even realize.
“I just thought it was normal. I have pictures of me less than one year old at my dad’s football games. I’m literally wrapped up in my baby blanket at the football game. I’ve just always loved sports so much, especially field hockey. Going to practice was never a burden for me.”
Donnelly also played soccer and lacrosse and even played t-ball, but field hockey was her sport of choice, and she began playing club for FSC in third grade. Since she was 12, Donnelly was part of the Futures program, the highly competitive pipeline to the national team.
“I remember starting out when I was in the U14 age group – the coaches didn’t really know who I was,” she said. “There were a lot of big names, and that’s when you’re trying to prove yourself.
“It was so frustrating for me. I knew I was better than some of the girls that were making it. Sometimes they don’t even want to be there, and they’re making it over you. That was definitely for many, many years the hardest part for me, trying to get over the nerves and trying to get through that.”
Finegan acknowledged that Donnelly “may be a little bit of a perfectionist.”
“I don’t know that she was necessarily nervous, but I think she strives for perfection,” the veteran coach said. “She’s a very bright student, she’s a phenomenally talented athlete, and I think when it comes down to it, maybe she didn’t want to make mistakes ever – ‘I know I can do that better.’ Somebody who strives to be an athlete like Riley – I think when they get to that level they grade themselves tougher than maybe the average player.”
This past January, Donnelly – a member of the U.S. U-19 National Indoor Team the last two years – survived the grueling series of tryouts that began last summer and earned a coveted spot on the U-19 National team.
A week and a half later, Donnelly travelled to Ireland with the national team for a three-game series against Ireland’s U-21 team. The U.S. won two games and tied the third.
“Putting on the uniform for the first time is so surreal – ‘Wow, this is official,’” she said. “For indoor, we had been to different tournaments, but our uniforms weren’t necessarily made by USA Field Hockey.
“Just being able to put on a legit jersey like the women’s team wears was really cool.”
Donnelly acknowledges that in the past she might well have been her own worst enemy.
“It’s very nerveracking, for sure, no matter how many times you’ve done it,” she said of the tryouts. “It’s crazy – you never know.
“A lot of people probably think (the pressure) comes from my parents, but they’d be like, ‘You’re doing fine. You’re okay. Just have fun.’ I was always very, very critical of myself. I think over the years I’ve lightened up on myself, and I think that’s also why I’ve been successful. I think once I was able to find a balance is when I could succeed with the rest of it.”
The tryout process for the national squad repeats itself every year.
“Yup, we’re basically starting all over again,” Donnelly said. “It’s crazy. People are on it one year and don’t even make the first cut the next year. You just always have to be on top of your game.”
It’s hardly a coincidence that the fortunes of the Central Bucks East field hockey improved dramatically with Donnelly in the lineup. The Patriots – winners of just four games the year prior to her arrival - won 45 the last three years combined. They also captured back-to-back SOL Continental Conference titles and last fall advanced to the state quarterfinals.
“When you look at the program at East – when Lauren Crandall was there, they were doing really well, and she was a two-time Olympian,” Finegan said. “When you look at Riley Donnelly, she’s done a ton for the program at East.
“We weren’t the state champion, but we’ve gone further with her than we had in past years. It’s unbelievable what she did for the program.”
Donnelly earned first team All-SOL recognition in each of the last three years. She was a first team PHSFHCA All-State selection the last two years.
She served notice that she would be an impact player the moment she stepped onto the field as a freshman, scoring 13 goals and finishing with 35 points. In each of the next three years, Donnelly had at least 70 points. She capped a stellar four-year varsity career last fall by scoring 32 goals – which included seven game winners - and assisting on 14 others for 78 points.
Donnelly, a two-year captain, surpassed the prestigious 100-goal milestone in the Patriots’ District One 6A third place game against Owen J. Roberts, connecting for a hat trick in a 3-2 East win.
“She was just on fire,” Finnegan said.
Donnelly leaves East’s program in a much better spot than when she arrived.
“It’s so cool,” she said. “Not a lot of people get to experience that progression. Some people are lucky enough to have their team be amazing all four years. Some people – their team is never good, but I think it was really special to see my team go from not winning very many games, having a losing record to what we did this year. Going through all the changes with different coaches, the group is girls is just really special.”
Sharing the journey with Donnelly has been her mother, who – in addition to serving as an assistant at East - coached her on the club level. Last fall, she had the opportunity to line up on the hockey field with her sister, freshman Emma Donnelly. She points to the support of her family as significant.
“We definitely are (tight), and sports definitely bring us together a lot,” she said. “They’re always there to push me, motivate me, drive me to all the stuff.
“They’ve always been so supportive. They always told me when I didn’t make (the national team) – ‘Your time will come.’ I’m almost glad I didn’t make it when I was 12, 13, 14 years old. So many people get burned out, and I feel like I appreciate it now that much more, and it’s made me work that much harder.”
Off the field, Donnelly – an excellent student - is a member of the National Honor Society. This spring, she participated in Unified Track, which allows athletes to compete on the same team as students with special needs. Donnelly also volunteered at an after school program at an elementary school.
This fall at Maryland, she plans to major in bioengineering.
“Honestly, I just want to see where it takes me,” Donnelly said. “I feel like so many people change their majors. I just want to see how it works out.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up somewhere with field hockey or teaching or something like that. We’ll see, I guess.”
For now, Donnelly is preparing to play at the next level for a Maryland program that has won eight national championships.
“Riley is just a very, very good kid,” Finegan said. “I know she’s going to continue to soar as far as her career in field hockey.”