Catching Up With Rachel Riley
She used to operate with surgical precision from the pitcher’s circle, mixing in fastballs, change-ups and a devastating dropball with a pinpoint accuracy that enabled her to twice lead the Greenwood Lady Gators to state softball championships. She followed that Hall-of-Fame high school career with an improbably successful four years at the University of Kentucky that saw her record 40 wins for her pitching career and slug a total of 15 home runs over her last two seasons.
At first glance, those softball accomplishments would seem to have little to do with the success that Dr. Rachel Riley is enjoying these days. That’s right, Riley is now a rookie in the world of dentistry, seeing patients at Lexington’s Boyd Thornton Dental after earning her Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry degree from UK in May. But, say those who know her, the drive and dedication that made Riley a softball star are key reasons why she is now an up-and-coming young medical professional.
“I can recall many a bus ride, looking back and seeing her with a textbook in her hand,” recalls Penny Reece, who coached those 2007 and 2008 state-champion teams at Greenwood. “I always knew that whatever profession she chose, she would be just as successful as she was in a softball uniform.”
The determination that Reece saw was never more evident than during Riley’s senior season at Greenwood. A torn anterior cruciate ligament in preseason workouts jeopardized both the season and the UK scholarship for the star pitcher from the 2007 state champs. Defying logic and medical norms, Riley made it back in time to lead Greenwood to the state championship and earn her second State Tournament Most Valuable Player award.
“I spent the whole season just trying to get healthy so I could help the team win,” recalls Riley. “There was a lot of pressure that year because we were the defending state champions. It was a team effort that year. In the state tournament everybody came together to get the wins. It was great.”
While those two state-championship runs in Owensboro were thrilling, Riley says a regional-tournament game from her junior season stands out as perhaps the most exciting of her Lady Gator career. Riley threw a nine-inning shutout and blasted the game-winning home run to keep the team on track for the school’s first state championship.
Riley, a member of the Kentucky Prep Softball Hall of Fame, had many big moments during a Greenwood career that started in sixth grade. She ended her GHS career with these astounding numbers: a .423 batting average, 131 runs batted in, 147 runs scored, and 85 wins as a pitcher with 815 strikeouts and a 0.48 earned run average.
Such eye-popping success was possible, say Reece and others who know her, only because of Riley’s work habits.
“Rachel was one of the most dedicated student-athletes I ever had the opportunity to coach,” says Reece. “I always said you could only distinguish between whether she was participating in practice or a game by what she was wearing. Whether it was stretching drills, skill drills, or whatever, she did it by the book. There were no shortcuts or cheating herself out of an opportunity to improve her game.”
“Rachel was always hard-working and goal-driven,” echoes Amanda Walden, who played shortstop on those championship Greenwood teams. “It was great playing behind Rachel. We knew she would give us all she had.”
That dedication and hard work started early. Gina Riley, Rachel’s mother, remembers “hours and hours” of practice in the family’s back yard or at Basil Griffin Park, and she remembers the summers spent following her daughter’s travel teams around the country.
“I have to give her credit,” Gina Riley says of her daughter. “She’s one of a kind. She’s not much for dilly-dallying. She gave up a lot, never partying or goofing off.”
That attitude continued when Riley made the transition to UK, where she faced a whole new level of competition and struggled initially.
“She was pretty much the underdog her whole career,” says Gina Riley. “There was always somebody bigger, somebody who could throw faster. She had to work hard, but she pretty much always rose to the challenge.”
Indeed, by her junior season at UK Riley was a leader for the Wildcats. She recorded 13 pitching wins that season while batting .354 with eight home runs. She tossed a one-hitter against Michigan to send Kentucky to the NCAA Super Regional and then threw a complete-game shutout against California in the first Super Regional game.
Despite such successes, Riley admits that competing at the Southeastern Conference level was never easy.
“It was definitely a transition,” she says. “The speed of the game was different, and it was mentally exhausting to throw to a lineup of nine girls who could hit the ball out of the park.”
The focus required to compete at a high level in softball while also earning her degree in biology with high honors was great preparation for dental school.
“I don’t think dental school was as hard as people made it out to be,” says Riley, who graduated in the top 10 percent of her class. “But I think that was because I had worked so hard all my life.”
What was hard, Riley admits, was taking off the softball uniform.
“It was really hard,” she says. “The first year of dental school I was kind of lost because it was so different. One day I was playing, and the next day I was an adult. It was definitely an adjustment. I still miss it. I think that’s why people are so crazy for sports. Nothing compares to the excitement of a big game, the competition, and the bonding with your teammates.”
But Riley thinks she has found a profession that, while not as exciting as competing in a sport, will have its rewards.
“It’s almost like an art,” Riley says of dentistry. “You give people back their smile or maybe their ability to eat. It’s the right fit for me.”
Not that Riley has abandoned the sport she grew to love as a youngster. She gives pitching lessons now, and he works the UK softball camps. What advice does she have for young players?
“Find what you’re passionate about and work really hard to be the best at it,” she says. “People come to me wanting a quick fix for their pitching. It’s the time you put in when nobody is looking that makes the difference. A small handful of people are willing to do what it takes to be the best at what they do.”