Late on a blustery afternoon, shadows stretch across the Columbia College soccer practice field as Kayann Glass ponders the best way to describe her teammate, Riley Barnes. After a pause, she asks, “Are you familiar with the word, ‘girlboss?’”
A number of adjectives under the definition of this term apply to Riley Barnes: confident, successful, capable, empowered, all-business. That might be a lot to put on the plate of a college freshman soccer player, but Riley is no stranger to using a strong foot to get a leg up.
An all-region and all-state player and two-time team captain at Gilbert High School, Riley became a valuable contributor off the bench in 2022 for the Koalas. She mostly played striker and right wing as Coach Robert Hunter sought to find her playing time.
“If we’re 20 yards out and have the opportunity to take a shot, there are very few players on our team we’d rather have with the ball than Riley,” he says. Robert, who has also coached high school and club soccer in the Midlands, says he’s worked with Riley as far back as age 12. “She’s really getting up to the speed of the game. She scored a lot of goals in high school, and one of her strengths is the ability to strike the ball.”
Right wing is a new position for Riley, and she says college soccer is an adjustment. “It’s definitely a higher intensity and pace, and I’m going against people 3 to 4 years older than me.” Choosing to play for the Koalas means she gets to have older sister Kaylee as a teammate, and her parents and grandparents can still come to her games. Riley scored her first goal in an Oct. 19 match against Allen University.
“I’m majoring in middle school education for social studies,” Riley says. “I’ve always been a big history person, and I want to be a teacher. I wouldn’t mind coaching high school soccer, either.” Beyond reading about history, Riley has also made it, becoming one of a handful of girls to play high school football in South Carolina. Her journey into the record books started at the intersection of social media and COVID-19.
Riley lost a big chunk of her 2020 soccer season to the pandemic. Around that time, she and a group that included Kaylee got together to work out. “We went to the practice field at the high school to play soccer. Someone left a football out there, and we wondered if we could kick a field goal,” Riley says. Riley split the uprights, with a friend capturing it on her phone.
Kaylee’s April 9, 2020, post of the video on Twitter asked Gilbert Head Football Coach Chad Leaphart, “Need a kicker?” Chad replied, “Might have our kicker for next year!” and the tongue-in-cheek exchange joined the millions of Twitter conversations floating away in the ether.
Fast forward to fall 2021. The pandemic was tormenting the Gilbert football team. With all their kickers off limits due to COVID protocols, the Indians lost a close game to Lexington when they failed on both their post-touchdown conversion tries.
“We also ended up missing out on some opportunities for short field goals that we didn’t even get a chance to kick,” Chad says. He remembered the video of Riley, and after a series of conversations over the weekend, the first female football player in Gilbert history showed up at practice that Monday to an accepting group of teammates. “They knew she could help them — and she did.”
Riley made a crucial pair of extra-point kicks in a 48-47 victory over Hartsville. Even after Gilbert’s regular kickers were cleared to return, Riley stayed and completed the season, playing in additional games. “That Hartsville game was very nerve-wracking for me because I only had one week of practice, and for some reason, it rained the whole week,” she says. “I learned I could do it and that girls can do any sport guys can do.”
This season another girl is kicking for the Indians. Chad says Lauren Ansell started out 4-for-4 on her point-after kicks. “I think her seeing what Riley was able to do inspired her to come out, and the guys all like her as a teammate, too,” he says. For Chad and the Indians, it was a learning experience in thinking outside the box in a challenging situation. “It came from being open to new ideas — and the willingness to go through with them.”
Riley says she sometimes misses football. “I enjoyed being out there, having fun, and being part of the team. However, I enjoy being part of the Columbia College soccer team, so it doesn’t make me miss it as much.” Kayann says Riley’s current teammates think it’s pretty cool that she’s played football. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been unexpected. Everyone describes Riley’s soccer style as physical and aggressive. Chad has a term for it — “a football mentality.”