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Under the radar?
To even suggest that Riggins, a four-time state champion off two 800-1,600 doubles, had been running under the radar when she stepped to the line in last June's New Balance Nationals Outdoor would seem a little outlandish. One doesn't get a coveted spot in the final heat of the championship girls' mile in Greensboro, N.C., without being somewhat of a household name, right?
Well, outside of her back-to-back middle-distance domination at Shippensburg, the then sophomore was not in the running spotlight often as her MileSplit stats bio confirms. Chances are the average track/XC fan in Pennsylvania hasn't seen Riggins showcase her skills if they aren't from the WPIAL or missed the PIAA finals in 2018 and '19.
In the spring of 2019, Riggins was the No. 2 800 runner in PA and the top sophomore by almost 5 seconds. Her PIAA Class AA meet record of 2:08.86 was 39th overall in the U.S. and No. 9 for sophomores.
Her 1,600 PR at Baldwin in 2019 also was the ninth-best clocking by a sophomore nationwide and No. 29 overall, with the effort No. 4 overall in PA and the top 10th-grader performance by almost 5 seconds.
"I know that once she hit the track, it was pretty much lights out," Shady Side Academy track coach Adam Janosko said of his first impression of Riggins as a freshman at the Fox Chapel school. "She was built for this. The amazing thing about Melissa is, of course, she is very active with soccer, but I don't think she was doing much track work or mileage or anything like that when she came to me. Really, I think that's part of her success that she isn't putting on the miles.
"I know different coaches have different philosophies with how much mileage you should have a week or a month or on the off-season. Playing the two sports, of course, they help each other but giving her body a break from the linear and doing sort of the lateral (in soccer) I think that helps with her strength and conditioning and her balance. She knows this."
Meet Melissa Riggins
By focusing on her first love of soccer during the fall and winter, the first high-level look that most got of Riggins the talented runner was at the 2018 Pine-Richland Invitational. With returning PIAA AAA 800 medalist and future Georgetown Hoya Malia Anderson her closest pursuer, the then freshman was almost 2 seconds ahead at the end in 2:16.19.
The same weekend a year later, Riggins shocked herself and her coach with a dominating double at the Baldwin Invitational. Matched against North Carolina State signee Gionna Quarzo and now-Davidson runner Liz Simms in the 1,600 and 800, respectively, the Shady Side ace had no equal, chopping her PRs to 4:48.79 and 2:10.75 in the runaway wins. Her combined margin of victory was an astounding 18.44 seconds.
"Not what I did run, I was not expecting that," Riggins said of her Baldwin double last year. "I had never broken 4:50 in the 1,600 so that was kind of a big thing. I was not expecting that, even when I was going through my laps. You're trying to estimate your time when you see your splits as you cross the starting line after each lap.
"I was not anticipating that ... at all. I was probably looking at something more like 4:52. It's just like 4 seconds, but there's just something so monumental about breaking that 4:50. The 800, I have this strange mindset where I kind of underestimate sometimes my fitness or abilities. I'll see runners run really fast times. In my mind, even if I have remotely close times, I can't compare myself to them."
With just one invite the norm for Shady Side Academy's outdoor track schedule, Janosko was hoping for big performances from his multi-lap standout as she would be matched against "some of the big dogs" from western Pennsylvania and Ohio. The final numbers, especially Riggins' more than 4-second drop in her PIAA 800 time from 2018, were difficult even for her coach to fathom.
"I think that we knew that she had something special, but I don't think we knew that it was that fast," Janosko said of the Baldwin double. "As soon as that happened, I said, 'OK, I think we can do the (PIAA) record for the 800.'
"It was always the goal in the back of my mind because she did so well her freshman year. Once (Baldwin) happened, we can do this. We just have to have good weather, good rest and good recovery. It was kind of a bit of a surprise to be honest that she did as well as she did that night. Really special, a special night for her."
On the Pitch
A starter in each of her three seasons for Shady Side Academy, Riggins has been a major contributor to that soccer team's success. SSA has finished in the top 3 in the WPIAL in the past three seasons and advanced to at least the PIAA semifinals in each of those years.
As a freshman in the fall of 2017, Riggins helped SSA claim the PIAA 1A title. A year ago, the team won the WPIAL title and was the state runner-up.
"I think I'm definitely very attacking," Riggins said of her playing style as a midfielder for her high school team or left back for her Pittsburgh Riverhounds Elite Clubs National League squad. "I get up the field a lot and I also get back and defend. I'm tall so I'm pretty good in the air, and I think that helps a lot. And I'm left-footed. And a lot of coaches are looking for that. They like left-footed players because it's hard to come by.
"I like running up the left wing and making a lot of crosses and getting shots off. ... If you see me in a game, you'll probably just see me running up and back, up and back."
Having her soccer cleats at the ready year-round for high school or club games, Riggins still has been able to give equal time to both sports, especially in the spring, Janosko said.
"Melissa is just so good at scheduling herself and making sure that she can do both," her track coach said. "She doesn't miss the competitions at all in track. She's at every dual meet, every big invitational that we want her to do."
A sport combination that she and her coach have in common, Riggins believes the additional time she spends on the soccer field prepping for games indoors and out serves two purposes.
"I think soccer helps me a lot with training more than I necessarily realize," Riggins said of her track preparation. "I'm a winger in the game. It's a lot of running. The constant up and down the lines. At practice, you're doing sprints and you don't even realize it sometimes because you're just enjoying the game.
"I think just that and then building some mileage that I get from the track season is a really good combo for my middle distance events. I get that quick speedwork in soccer and then when I'm at track practice, I am focused on endurance and getting that base."
Already active as a soccer player, Riggins got her start in track as a Pine-Richland seventh-grader. Her first competitive mile and her most recent one at NBNO share a commonality in the final results: they are the only individual races outside of prelims when she was not first across the line.
"I still remember my first mile race and who it was against," Riggins said of the meet with WPIAL distance power North Allegheny. "I was in the lead for a while and then a girl came up behind me and ended up beating me. I got a 5:25, and I remember feeling upset. It was the first race I had ever run. Wow, that's such a bummer. I thought I was going to win.
"Then we were racing 4x4 that meet and I got the baton and we were in third place and I had to make up a lot of space. ... We were coming down to the last 15 meters and I ended up passing (the leader) and we won 4x4. I kind of learned from that. Every moment is a learning moment in track."
2020 - A time trial and possibly a run on the trails
Plans for the 2020 track season for Riggins included a potential trip to the Penn Relays. Janosko noted, however, that the PIAA record-holder had one stipulation tied to running solo in the storied event at Franklin Field: that SSA also field a relay team in the multi-day track and field extravaganza.
"This is part of who Melissa is," Janosko said of Riggins, who will double in her specialties and run either the 4x400 or 4x800 in every dual meet. "She loves relays."
It appears that Riggins' 2020 track season now will consist of just a pair of solo time trials back in mid-May to check her fitness. Based on information the rising senior shared, it looks like she passed those tests with flying colors.
"My time trials went very well," said Riggins, who wants to put her name next to school records for the 400 and 3,200 in 2021. "I did an 800 and 1,600, and both were my first time on the track all season. I was very pleased with my times because for my first time 'racing' (no competition) they were by far my best times. I guess that also just confirmed how much stronger I felt this year."
She added that the "rust busters" that doubled as her season-opening and -ending races were on separate days. The 1,600 time trial was about 10-15 seconds faster than her usual opener, Riggins noted.
She had hoped to enter track meets while in Florida recently, but those were either cancelled or postponed until after she was headed back to Pennsylvania.
"I don't have anything else planned for the season, although I have continued my training somewhat," she said. "I guess now is just transition time to soccer."
There still is a chance that fans of her running talents and college coaches might not have to wait until next spring to get a look at Riggins in spikes and not soccer cleats.
"I haven't ruled out any XC races," she said. "I might do a few invitationals just to get racing experience, but it would probably only be one or two here or there."
Finding a two-sport college
Heading into the first full recruiting year affected by COVID-19, Riggins has attracted a lot of attention from college coaches in both sports. She plans on taking 2-3 official visits early this fall.
She has been a two-sport standout for several years. She hopes to find the right college that will agree to her desire to lace up cleats and spikes in the same year.
"A lot of coaches have been reaching out, but I'm kind of in a unique situation where my goal right now is to play soccer and run track in college," she said. "Obviously, some people are on board with that and some people aren't on board with that. It's sometimes hard when schools will reach out, especially now because even if they are on board with that, there's such a process of getting both coaches to communicate with each other.
"Then the soccer coach has to watch me play. They have to be on board with my skill level because obviously with track, you just go on MileSplit. There's your times. That's how fast you are. With soccer, everything's so subjective. Every coach has a different play style. They all want different kinds of players."
With her running resume thus far limited to the 2018 and 2019 outdoor seasons, Riggins realizes that she does not have as complete of a body of work in track as she does in soccer. Her search for a school that embraces her interest in competing year-round in different sports will not be an easy one.
Above: Riggins running to a dominant win in the 1,600m at WPIALs in 2019
"It's the combination of the two which has been the most difficult, but it's rewarding when you find a school you really like that's on board with both of them," she said of lining up schools for unofficial and official visits. "I think right now it just complicates things not having my spring times. For me, it's easy to say I'm running the fastest runs.
"When I go out and run 5 miles, I'm able to hit faster and faster paces than I've ever hit before but does it equate to an X 800 meter time or whatever mile time. (Coaches) want to see the precise splits, but around here we don't have access to tracks. All the tracks are locked up. I feel like I've proved myself as a runner, but there is always more proof."
Wherever Riggins decides to continue her athletic and academic careers and whether or not she will be left-foot striking from 18 yards out AND kicking from 300 meters, Janosko is certain of one thing.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime athlete for me as a coach," Janosko said. "Her times just keep going down. The crazy thing is I don't see a ceiling for her. Even though she puts on that demeanor, she is the total competitor. One word to describe her ... she just wants to compete, and she wants to win. I think that's where the nervousness comes from is that she doesn't want to disappoint herself because she is that good."