For more than four years, Riley Johnson couldn’t possibly participate in one sport without the other.
That has been the case ever since the Urbana High senior lined up for a Lightning Running Club cross-country meet as an eighth-grader.
“I’ve always liked to run because it was a very fundamental part of soccer,” said Johnson, a first-team All-County selection in soccer last fall.
But there’s more to it.
Johnson has been a member of Urbana’s track and field team for the past four years, and Hawks coach C.J. Ecalono brings up Johnson’s “bulldog mentality.” When she sets foot on a track, she participates in another sport that satisfies her burning desire to be better than any competitor next to her.
“Competing has always pushed me to be better,” Johnson said. “Some people, their motivation might be to better themselves. I wanted to better myself just to beat the competition.”
So while Johnson accepted a full scholarship offer to play soccer at Murray State last year, she also plans to run track as a walk-on.
Johnson has built a healthy reputation for being one of the state’s best soccer players, with the Maryland Association of Coaches of Soccer tabbing her as a first-team all-state forward even though she missed half of her senior season. She has had her fair share of bad luck as a high school soccer player, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left leg as a freshman before suffering a torn ACL in her right leg last fall.
While those injuries forced her to miss the indoor track seasons during her freshman and senior seasons, at no point in time did she ever consider completely dropping track for health reasons. And that remains the case even though she has a scholarship in hand.
While discussing the 2020 outdoor season with Ecalono, Johnson expressed a desire to run the 300-meter hurdles. Expressing concern for her health, Ecalono denied the request but was certainly open to Johnson running in relays and long-distance events.
After tearing an ACL back in October, people in Johnson’s inner circle have told her to proceed with caution. Someone might tell her she’s trying to recover from the injury too quickly. Someone else might tell her she should redshirt in college to ensure that she’s at full strength the next time she’s on a soccer field.
While she doesn’t approach the rehabilitation process for her injury with reckless abandon, such comments only bring out that bulldog mentality even further.
Johnson actually suffered a third injury in December 2018, landing awkwardly and breaking her left foot during a 55-meter hurdles race. Two months later, she ran a leg of the Hawks’ 4x800 relay at the state meet, outdueling a teammate for a spot on the team two days prior in a time trial.
“I felt like it would be a wasted year if I wasn’t able to compete at states,” Johnson said.
In the 2019 outdoor season, she recorded the third-fastest time in Urbana history in the 300 hurdles with a sixth-place finish at the state meet (46.68). Her teammate, Lily Morrell, finished just ahead of her in fifth (46.34).
“I want to prove to them that, hey, just because I’ve had this injury, I don’t need that redshirt,” Johnson said of her future collegiate career. “I can come back, I can still play, [and] I can still run my freshman year.
“I can still be an impactful person to the program and show that this injury is not my setback but that it’s helped me become a better athlete.”
Johnson firmly believes running track makes her a better soccer player, giving her speed few can match on the pitch.
She didn’t even need to step onto the soccer field to prove that. On the first day of tryouts, Urbana coach Keith Bauer has all of his players log a two-mile run to emphasize the importance of endurance. Johnson’s time in the run was somewhere between 45 seconds and a full minute faster than any of her soccer teammates.
“[I want] to be one of the faster players on the field, to be one of those people that the defenders or the forwards cannot catch up to in order to get to the ball,” she said.
But for Johnson, it works both ways.
On the soccer field, she spends plenty of time fighting for possession of the ball. That helps her on a track. Johnson strongly disagrees with those who say track and field doesn’t require any sort of physicality.
“There’s a bit of contact, you’re pushing for position [in track],” Johnson said. “Especially for the last hundred meters of any races, it’s a big push, and in soccer, in the last 10 minutes, you’ve got to push for everything that you have left.
“You’ve got to keep pushing yourself to be competitive and to win.”
For Johnson, everything comes back to being competitive.
Over the years, Ecalono has coached a bevy of talented runners who have excelled at the state level. In relays, however, he has often turned to Johnson to run the anchor leg because few can match her competitiveness.
Ecalono said Johnson could be the most versatile runner he’s ever had, adding she could run in any individual event ranging from the 100 dash to the 3,200 run oudoors.
“You’re going to get a full effort from someone who doesn’t want to lose,” Ecalono said.