When Maryland field hockey head coach Missy Meharg saw her freshman standout defender Riley Donnelly crying and overwhelmed, Meharg didn’t console her or tell her it was going to be okay. Instead, she told her that isn’t what the field hockey program is about.
“She had some tears in her eyes one night, and I looked at her and said, ‘We don’t cry,’” Meharg said. “She just kind of stopped and went right about her business and did super well. So, when things get hard for Riley, she puts the appropriate amount of pressure on herself to get the job done.”
That’s the tough love and support Meharg has spread to all of her players in over three decades of coaching in College Park. As one of the most passionate coaches in the country, Meharg has become known for finding what inspires her players to get the best out of them – both on and off the field.
As a bioengineering major and starter on the third-ranked field hockey team in the nation, Donnelly was stressed out from the workload that both her classes and role on the team presented. Nonetheless, Donnelly appreciates what she’s learned from her head coach so far.
“You don’t see very many coaches that have been coaching as long as she has, and it’s amazing with all the players she’s coached and where they are now,” Donnelly said. “It’s just one big family.”
The family-like atmosphere was a major reason Donnelly decided to play field hockey at Maryland.
“I think the program has such a tight-knit family and the values are really close to what I was looking for,” Donnelly said. “The university as a whole has such a positive atmosphere, such school spirit. When you hear Maryland field hockey, there’s just something that comes with it that’s really special.”
Hailing from southeastern Pennsylvania, Donnelly attended Central Bucks East where she was a standout field hockey and lacrosse player. With an innate ability to dribble past oncoming defenders, Donnelly earned All-American honors and helped her team capture two conference championships.
As a highly-talented recruit with experience playing on the youth national teams, Donnelly has started all 11 games during Maryland’s impressive undefeated start to the season, failing to play every minute of the game only twice.
“I feel like she’s been pretty consistent throughout the entire season,” junior defender Kelee Lepage said. “There hasn’t been a time when she was nervous and then went into it. I feel like she just came into it very open and her maturity showed from the start.”
Donnelly was tasked with showing a sense of maturity in a completely foreign position – defense. As a dominant attacking force in high school, where Donnelly used her eye-catching athleticism to score more than 100 goals during her career.
Meharg inserted Donnelly into the defensive backline straight away, reasoning that her quick hands are perfect for the possession-based style Maryland employs. Donnelly’s seamless transition to not only her new position on the field, but also her new life and responsibilities around campus would not have been possible without the help of her team.
“So far I think it’s been the support of my teammates and coaches as well,” Donnelly said. “They’ve laid out what the expectations are, and if you follow that and work hard then it’s pretty easy to fit in.”
The learning hasn’t been a one-way street, however.
“She’s definitely not afraid to ask questions and speak her mind,” said Lepage, one of three captains on the team. “In her position, she’s new to it and she’s never played back before, but she’s doing amazing with intercepting and stepping up. She does a great job of not only listening to everything were giving her, but also giving to us.”
Her selfless transition to defense has paved the way for Maryland’s star goalscorers, senior Linnea Gonzales and junior Nike Lorenz, to continue to shine offensively. The duo has scored 18 goals through 11 games.
Donnelly comes from a sports-driven family where both her parents were standout athletes at Lehigh in football and field hockey, respectively. Her father also coached football at Central Bucks East.
“She’s such a strong athlete and comes from such a good culture of coaching and athletics,” Meharg said. “Mentally she’s very tough, she’s an honor student here in bioengineering so it’s not a surprise she’s learned to adjust so quickly.”
Her remarkable athleticism and work ethic landed her a spot on the U-19 national team this past spring, where she started to learn Maryland’s style of play early under the Terps’ second-year assistant coach Katie Bam, who also serves on the U-19 coaching staff.
Donnelly aspires to represent the red, white and blue senior team after her Maryland career.
“I’ve definitely set my standards high for myself,” Donnelly said. “So just having something to work towards has been really exciting and I think being here as a freshman is a really good step in preparation for maybe that down the road.”
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