The long journey to a team realizing its full potential and winning a state championship is difficult. But staying on top and making a bid to repeat, all while playing the majority of the season dubbed as the No. 1 high school girls soccer team in the country? Much more difficult.
So how did Eastern Regional High School junior Riley Tiernan almost always make it look easy this fall? The Rutgers commit coupled talent with physical and mental growth to turn in a breakout season for a player who was already a star.
An All-State player as a sophomore, when the Vikings won a Group 4 state title, Tiernan took her game to a new level in 2019.
She led the state in assists (with 34) to go alongside 33 goals. When the calendar flipped to October and the Coaches and NJSIAA tournaments took off, so did Tiernan, who scored 20 of her goals in Eastern’s final 14 games.
Tiernan’s tenacious play-making ability moved Eastern one win away from defending its state title (they fell in the state semifinals). For her efforts, Riley Tiernan is South Jersey Sports Weekly’s pick as the Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
“Amazing,” Tiernan said of the honor.
That also might be a word apropos for the penultimate goal of her junior season.
With Eastern locked in a 1-1 tie with rival Shawnee in the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals, the Vikings fended off a Renegades free kick in their own end in the final minute of overtime. But before the whistle sounded, Tiernan found the ball and, somehow, went end-to-end for nearly 75 yards, criss-crossing the turf at midfield and flying up the left side, leaving defenders in the dust and rifling a shot into the back of the net to lead the eventual sectional champions to a season-saving victory.
“I remember I looked up, saw space and just kept going,” Tiernan said.
— Jersey Sports Zone (@JSZ_Sports) November 19, 2019
The golden goal was emblematic of Tiernan’s development as a high school player. Although she’s started for the Vikings ever since entering school as a freshman, Tiernan hasn’t just grown up as most teenagers do (she has to be close to 5-10) but she’s also matured into her game, using her wits to complement her physicality.
“I think I’m definitely stronger with the ball and smarter with passing,” she said. “This year I got better at taking it hard. Last year I would dribble but I wouldn’t take it strong. I worked on taking hard and following through all the way and finishing.”
Long-time Eastern head coach Jamie McGroarty concurred.
“Her skill level has always been off the charts since she’s got here,” he said. “But she’s bigger, she’s stronger now and she’s able to ward off defenders easier than in the past. The game is slowing down for her now, where she can read the game and understand the game and her soccer IQ is getting better as far as when to release the ball, when to shoot. I think this year she was a little more aggressive shooting the ball, and that obviously helped us as a team.”
After rising to the top of the New Jersey soccer scene – and receiving national praise, too – in the last 12 months, Eastern’s girls soccer team will have two sizable holes to fill on its 2020 roster. Seniors Kelli McGroarty (our 2018 Player of the Year) and Sara Brocious (a defender worthy of first-team All-State honors this year) are off to LaSalle University and Rutgers University, respectively.
But with Tiernan leading a still-large contingent of letterwinners back, the Vikings aren’t expecting to take a step back, either.
“I know it will be a challenge because they are two main pieces of our team, but I think we can play (well) still and we’ll be able to balance each other out and work harder to fill in those gaps,” Tiernan said.
And there’s also the matter of that piece of hardware that they’d like to put back into the program’s trophy case next fall.
“Definitely,” Tiernan said of trying to end her high school career with state championships in two of her final three seasons. “(This season) gives me more drive because we’re going to be coming for that title. We want to win that back.”