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Challenging the record books

Riley Donovan has been on a scoring tear as she leads Atlantic University Sport (AUS) women’s soccer in goals and points. With eight goals in eight games as of Oct. 21, the Dalhousie University Tigers women’s soccer star could challenge for the most regular season goals in a season in program history.  

The team records since the AUS began tracking goals in 1994 have been set by Kate Gillespie in 1994 and Stef Finateri in 1998, for the men’s and women’s sides respectively. They scored 11 each in those respective seasons.  

 “I think it’s the team. On those goals, the assists and passes were incredible,” Donovan said of her career-high goal tally, partially deflecting credit onto her teammates. “I was pretty much just in the right place at the right time.” 

This is her third full season with the Tigers. She played in 2018 and 2019, but not in 2017 due to a torn ACL or 2020 because of, obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, her three goals were third on the team. 

Donovan’s scoring in “the diamond” 

Donovan typically played the striker position earlier in her Dal career. This year, the Tigers have formed their attack more in a diamond shape with Donovan playing as an attacking midfielder. This has helped open the game up for Donovan compared to when she played striker, a position that is more movement-restrictive than midfielders with longer-ranged duties, in a four fullbacks, three midfielders and three forwards formation. She said she’s beginning to feel comfortable in the position.  

Head coach Cindy Tye agreed with Donovan’s evaluation of the formation’s success and said there are many benefits to having her play at the midfield position.  

  “I think it gives her a bit more freedom because she plays the tip of the diamond with a couple of players in front of her, so she can get into the dangerous spaces,” Tye said.  

  “The diamond has really allowed Riley to find her niche this year in attacking, that allows her to show her skill offensively while continuing to help us defensively,” teammate Holly Buckler said. “She finds those gaps in between players and she’s always in the right spot when she’s there. That’s how we get Riley the ball to her feet.”  

Teammates’ help along the way 

Donovan’s highlights of the season include her performances against the Universitè de Moncton Aigles Bleues and the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers on back-to-back weekends. She scored four goals against Moncton and followed that up with a hat trick against UPEI. That helped vault her to AUS statistical leads. 

Donovan, in part, attributed that success to Zoe Brown. Brown is tied for the conference lead in assists after playing just five games. Brown changed the picture in the Tigers’ attack by taking on more opponents one-on-one and creating space where Donovan could slip to and score. 

“Riley and I have played for a number of years together, so me and her have already had good chemistry,” Brown said. “I think it’s about being able to connect with each other on the field. We help each other out and create scoring opportunities for her and the team.” 

Donovan went back to her home province of Ontario for the summer to train. She focused on improving her long-distance running to prepare for more midfield action, which meant a lot of 10-kilometre runs. Buckler said Donovan is always one of the hardest workers on the field in every practice and game, making her an excellent leader.  

“As a leader, Riley is one of the first players to welcome you to the team and she’s like that with everybody,” Buckler said, who speaks from experience as she just joined Dal this season. “She is a great leader who leads by example with everything she does in practices, as well as in games.” 

As the Tigers close in on a berth in the 2021 AUS women’s soccer championships, Donovan’s ambitions extend beyond just filling the net. 

“I think we can win AUS. It’s going to be a lot of hard work. But we are more than capable of doing it and I think we can win U SPORTS. We’re at that level,” Donovan said. “We have the scoring talent, we have the defensive ability and goaltending, we have all the ability to do it. It’s just having belief in ourselves at this point because we have the ability, and we need to believe that we’re able to do that.” 


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