Every time Melissa Riggins sets foot on a track, it's easy to see that she is on a mission - to be the first one at the finish line.
The same singular focus that has helped the Shady Side Academy senior claim four PIAA track titles (thus far) paid big dividends in recent months as she traversed the college recruitment process in the days of COVID-19. This time, however, the one goal actually was two - to find a school that is as committed to Riggins running track AND playing soccer as a collegian as she is to doing the same.
A two-time double-winner at Shippensburg wrapped up her recruiting journey several days ago, alerting the coaches at Georgetown University on Thursday that she was verbally committing to being a multi-sport Hoya.
"I could positively say that all of my finalist schools were great schools and have great programs for both track and soccer, but for me I really loved Georgetown's location and the coaching staff," Riggins said of the Big East Conference school in our nation's capital. "Coach (Mitchell) Baker, the women's distance coach, really made me feel wanted, and I could tell that he believed in me and thought I could be very successful.
"Additionally, Coach (Dave) Nolan, the women's soccer coach, runs a very competitive team where I definitely hope to challenge myself and improve as a player. The combination of the amazing academics and great track and soccer programs really made it a dream school for me."
Introduced to soccer at an early age, Riggins continued to progress in the world's most popular sport, earning a starting spot on her high school team as a freshman and progressing on the club side of the game eventually with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Elite Clubs National League. Prior to experiencing any statewide success in track, Riggins believed her college athletic career likely would involve just one sport.
"When I first started my recruiting process freshman year, it was only for soccer," said Riggins, who is looking to major in biology or another science. "However, after my sophomore track season, I found that I really loved the sport and officially decided that I wanted to try to be a dual-sport athlete in college.
"No matter how difficult it became or how many times a program that seemed like it would be the perfect fit ultimately fell through, I was definitely very confident that I wouldn't want to compromise by dropping a sport. I knew for sure that I at least wanted to try. I also enjoyed watching other NCAA dual-sport athletes and how many found success and it really pushed me to believe in myself and realize that I'm determined, hardworking and could most definitely do this."
The Hoyas eventually won out over Virginia and Furman. Due to restrictions placed on the recruitment process by the NCAA because of the coronavirus, Riggins reached her decision without the benefit of an official visit to either of her finalists.
"Unfortunately, I was never able to take any official visits, but I'm very grateful to have taken an unofficial visit to Georgetown early this spring where I got to meet both the track and soccer coaching staffs and also see the campus in person," she said. "I visited Furman last fall when I attended a soccer camp, so I was familiar with their campus and facilities. Although I really wanted to take my official visit, once I saw the NCAA dead periods extension once again, I decided that I would have to make my decision without that experience."
The last time Riggins toed the line in track was in the 2019 New Balance Nationals Outdoor as a finalist in the Championship Mile. Although a sixth-place finish in the hot heat and 10th overall wasn't what she envisioned or was accustomed to, it was confirmation that Riggins, as a single-season runner, was one of the nation's best over two laps or four.
"Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at how many schools were open to me being a dual-sport athlete," said Riggins, whose outdoor PRs of 2:08.86 and 4:48.79 are in PA MileSplit's all-time top 15. "I got the official OK from six schools, but even more than that considered it where it either wasn't a good fit for the track program or soccer program.
"I was so grateful to how coaches, either track or soccer, worked hard to communicate with the other sport at their schools and make it feasible for me to split my time. I've loved listening to coaches tell me of their success with multi-sport athletes in the past and having them really push me forward to keep going for my goals of being successful in both."
Building a running resume around her soccer seasons and schedule, Riggins had arguably her most extensive training period this spring and early summer when the global pandemic wiped out her club soccer team's activities and also any track meets.
Last Saturday (September 19), she ran her first and thus far only cross country race in the season-opening Red, White & Blue Classic, heading into the race with a conditioning level based in soccer practices and an additional 10 to 15 miles in her training flats. She tucked in behind defending PIAA Class AAA champion Mia Cochran of Moon Area in the early going and claimed runner-up honors in a solid time of 18:13, with Cochran running 17:39 to christen the 5K layout.
"Most likely not," Riggins said when asked if she would race again this fall. "My soccer schedule is pretty hectic, and I've decided that this is the time when I need to be there for my team. While even if one fits the schedule, it's become increasingly difficult to keep running for cross country training outside of soccer and I think I'm just proud at this point that I challenged myself to do one in the first place.
"It was a valuable experience where I put myself out there, worked hard and had an outcome that I'm very proud of for having no racing experience and very minimal training, but my high school (soccer) team and being a good leader for them is priority right now."
Riggins and her Shady Side Academy soccer squad, one of the top teams in the WPIAL and statewide over the past several years, got the 2020 season off to a strong start Saturday. With Riggins scoring two goals and assisting on two others, the defending WPIAL champions and PIAA runners-up toppled Deer Lakes, 7-3.