Smith returns to Ashland for Oregon exhibition

When she arrived in Eugene for a soccer camp prior to her senior season at Ashland High School, Riley Smith just wanted to make a good impression, maybe even draw the attention of the Oregon Ducks coaching staff.

Now, less than three years after nailing that audition and earning roster spot at UO as a walk-on, Smith is once again trying to impress Oregon coaches, but for a different reason. The sophomore defender wants more playing time and on Saturday she'll be trying to earn some at her old stomping grounds, only minutes away from where she played home games as a Grizzly midfielder/forward.

Smith and the Oregon Ducks women's soccer team will take on UC Davis in an exhibition game slated to begin at 3 p.m. Saturday at University Field, where the Southern Oregon University women play their home games.

Smith has been playing left-back for the Ducks, logging about 60 minutes in a game last Saturday against Portland State. This Saturday's friendly will be Smith's first game in Ashland since she led the Grizzlies as a senior in 2010, and she's looking forward to playing in front of friends and family.

"I'm actually really excited," said Smith, who three times earned first-team all-Southern Sky Conference honors for the Grizzlies before graduating in 2011. "I thought it would never happen. It's really cool to play in my hometown for once. I'm curious to see who shows up."

Smith took four shots and had one assist in 14 games during her freshman season at UO in 2011, but saw her role reduced under new head coach Kat Mertz in 2012. Smith has been on the field a lot in the spring, however, and is hopeful that her performance will lead to more playing time in the fall. She's also anticipating a turnaround for the team after the Ducks finished 8-10-2 last season, including 3-7-1 in the Pac-12.

"Last season I didn't really get a chance to prove myself on the field as much as I wanted to," she said, "so that's my goal, to get playing time because that's why I'm here. But, we'll see what happens.

"It's been nice to get back on the field and play (this spring). I love it. The teammates are supportive — we're all supportive of each other. I think we're all just getting our confidence back and just having fun. Everything comes naturally when you're having fun and playing confident."

Smith was just another small-town soccer star with Division I aspirations when she arrived on the UO campus in the summer of 2010 for a week-long camp. She immediately fell in love with the campus and made Oregon her top choice, the program she would most like to represent. Trouble was, the odds of that happening didn't seem great and Smith's chances seemed to rest almost entirely upon her performance at the camp. Staring down the pressure, Smith delivered on the field that week and Oregon's coaching staff took notice. Before the camp ended, Oregon's coach at the time, Tara Erickson, invited Smith back for an unofficial visit about two weeks later.

"After a few days there I was like, 'I really, really, really want to go here,'" Smith said. "I had no idea what my chances were, but once they started talking to me I got really excited about it."

During the visit Smith took a tour of Oregon's athletics facilities, considered among the best in the country, met the team and sat down to talk with Erickson. Then, with her parents sitting next to her in Erickson's office, Smith was asked if she would like to play for the Ducks.

"Surreal," Smith said of the meeting. "It was pretty unbelievable because I always wanted to play Division I soccer. I just kept thinking that I'm dreaming."

As a walk-on, Smith receives all the benefits of a scholarship player, but is responsible for paying her way. It's a sacrifice that she and her parents were willing to make even before Smith received a partial scholarship prior to her freshman year.

"It's expensive," said Smith, a digital arts major, "but it was my reach school that I really wanted to go to so my parents were in full support. It was a dream to go here, so I don't think I even questioned saying yes. I knew I was going to have to work hard for it."

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