From injury and uncertainty, to greatness and a second title.
It’s what faced Rileigh Ricken this season as the Fallon graduate led the Lady Wave softball team to their third Division I-A state championship in four years.
Ricken’s offensive prowess catapulted Fallon and cemented the dynasty. In addition, Ricken also claimed her second title in three years.
In addition, the Fallon slugger and ace will play for NCAA Division II Southwestern Oklahoma State University next season.
As a result of her accomplishments on the diamond, Ricken has been selected as the LVN’s girls Athlete of the Year.
“She talks about her job isn’t just pitching, her bat has to be there,” Fallon coach Bill Archer said of Ricken. “When other kids see that, they figure that’s the type of leader that will carry us through the playoffs and they can contribute to reach those goals.”
Ricken’s high school career began in Tokyo — on the baseball team.
There she was the catcher with only one other girl on the team. Ricken, though, knew her destiny lay in softball, so she and her teammate would tune their softball skills after baseball practice.
Ricken would pitch, working on her command, speed and conditioning. But then Mother Nature threw a nasty curve.
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit 231 miles north of Tokyo. It rocked the country and created a massive tsunami that devastated much of the infrastructure including the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
“It caught me off guard,” Ricken said. “We had earthquakes all the time. It was almost like you were on a boat. It seemed like it lasted forever. The streets were packed with people walking.”
Ricken, who was living with her father, said the bus trip home from school took seven-and-a-half hours. Since the duration was more than six hours longer than normal, it made for a challenging ride.
Many of the hungry students had to jump off the bus, run to find food and run back to the bus, which was still moving on the highway.
Two days after the quake, Ricken, her stepmother and other siblings left Japan and flew to upstate New York. Several months later, Ricken moved to Fallon with her mother.
“We left because the radiation was leaking into Tokyo,” she added. “I was supposed to go back two weeks later, but I never went back.”
Back in softball
After 11 months of not playing softball, Ricken said she had reservations about how much playing time she would get, especially since she was joining a club defending its 2011 state title.
Much like riding a bike, Ricken quickly regained her groove and a spot in the starting lineup. She rotated between catcher and third base and had her first of three standout seasons for the green and white.
She hit .439 with 29 RBIs as Fallon rolled to a 29-6 record and won the school’s fourth state championship.
“She came in as a quality, decent softball player,” Archer said. “She was No. 2 behind (Jill) Pinder, but we talked about how she will be the one.”
Her junior season, however, ended in heartbreak as Fallon’s ace.
The Lady Wave once again reached the title game, but needed two wins over rival Fernley to earn a third straight crown.
Fallon jumped out to leads of 7-3, 9-4 and 13-9. Fernley, though, tallied five runs on several errors to snatch the state title away from the Lady Wave.
The devastating loss, Ricken said, provided all the motivation Fallon needed this season.
Up, down and crowned
The 2014 campaign started with trepidation for Ricken.
During the 2013 basketball season, she tore a muscle in her hip, but played through the injury and into the summer season to enhance her college recruiting efforts.
“I was definitely nervous with coming out of my surgery,” Ricken said. “I was cutting it close with my recovery time. I was really nervous to throw.”
In October 2013, she underwent surgery with an expected recovery time of six months, which would put her up against the start of the season.
Three months into rehab, though, Ricken was back in the circle, but was wary of how her hip would react. She started throwing at closer distances, gradually moving back until she was able to tow the rubber from 43 feet.
“From last year to this year, … the maturity of the player, both off the field and on the field,” Archer said. “She took to the motto ‘One team, one dream’ and held everybody to that.”
Ricken’s mind, though, was filled with doubts because for the first time she was throwing pain free, which left her thinking something was wrong with her hip.
Soon she realized the hip was healthy and resumesd her place as Fallon’s ace.
“It held up the entire season,” Ricken added.
Much like the past four years, Fallon rolled to an impressive early-season league record of 12-0 including a pair of victories over Fernley.
Then the slump came.
The Lady Wave lost two of three to Lowry, one to Fernley and two of three to Dayton.
“We fell into this slump and a five-game losing streak,” Ricken said. “That was the mental part for me. I couldn’t get frustrated even though I wanted to.
Nevertheless, Fallon righted the ship with team building off the field and tore through the postseason behind Ricken’s efforts.
She led the club with a .515 average, 48 RBIs, 10 doubles, 10 home runs and 22 walks. In the circle, Ricken went 15-5 with a 1.45 ERA and struck out 125 in 149.1 innings.
In the playoffs, Ricken belted a pair of home runs including a mammoth three-run blast against Fernley in the Northern DI-A regional semifinal.
In the state tournament, Fallon ripped off a pair of wins to set up a showdown with Fernley, once again. The Vaqueros won the first game, but Ricken and the Lady Wave held off the defending champs to claim another state title.
“That was a different Rileigh,” Archer said. “She didn’t have that stamina (last year), but she (developed) that stamina and carried us through the playoffs.”
Ricken’s career in three years at Fallon was impressive, to say the least. She hit .456 with a school-record 19 home runs and 121 RBIs. In the circle, Ricken went 36-17 with 293 strikeouts.
From Bulldog to Bulldog
Ricken’s softball odyssey, however, is ongoing. Once a Fresno State commit, her journey to Weatherford, Okla., was unexpected.
Last summer, Ricken was playing for a travel team in Southern California. There, she was contacted and offered a preferred walk-on spot with Fresno State, a DI school.
It was always Ricken’s dream to play for a DI program, and the Bulldogs seemed to fit. Finances, though, were the driving force for Ricken to look for other options.
As a preferred walk-on, no scholarship money was available through Fresno State and a bill of more than $28,000 was too steep.
Ricken, though, had been in contact for several years with Barbara Burnett, who headed a junior college program in Kansas. Ricken was offered scholarship money and signed with Burnett, but later was told by the coach she was hired by the Bulldogs of Southwestern Oklahoma State.
Ricken was released from her letter of intent at the Kansas school and will sign with the Bulldogs in the coming days. She will pitch for the Bulldogs.
“She (Burnett) told me she needed a pitcher,” Ricken explained. “She called back and is offering me more money than any other senior on the team.”
There, Ricken will pursue a degree in chemistry and with a goal of applying to medical school after completing her undergraduate degree. From there, she aims to join the Air Force and become a surgeon.
“I want to be either a pediatric or orthopedic surgeon,” Ricken said.