By Zach Carnahan
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Sports have a tendency to revolve around records. Some records seem untouchable and others are meant to be broken. Sometimes, lost on the record boards amongst all the numbers are the athletes connected to their numbers. The athletes who should be remembered for their personality off the court, rather than their presence on it - athletes like Kansas libero Brianne Riley.
Riley, a senior from Naperville, Ill., earned one such record. On Nov. 24, 2012 during the final match of the regular season, Riley passed Melissa Manda (1,457, 2007-10) on Kansas volleyball’s all-time career digs list in just three seasons.
Riley admits that all the media attention and recognition surrounding her feat after the season slowly took its toll on her. She has put that number and last season behind her. Now she wants to focus on the goals the team has set for this season and make lifelong memories with her teammates.
“When they write articles and they put ‘KU’s all-time digs leader Brianne Riley’ that was when I was kind of like, wow they really labeled me as this,” Riley said. “It is cool and it’s an honor and I worked really hard for that, but that’s over and done with, just like last year is over and done with. I have other things that I’m trying to work toward, but most of that now is just as a team. Those are just numbers they don’t mean that much.”
Even though now she is disheartened to constantly be referred to as ‘KU’s all-time digs leader Brianne Riley,’ there was once a time that she had her sights on Manda’s mark. It began when she visited the Kansas campus as a senior from Benet Academy.
“(Kansas head coach Ray Bechard) was taking me around and he was showing me the record boards,” Riley said. “He pointed to the digs one and I told him, ‘If you let me come here, I can break that for you.’”
Bechard offered Riley that day and the defensive specialist reported with eight other newcomers to create the No. 26 recruiting class in 2010, according to PrepVolleyball.com.
“I was a little iffy at first coming in with so many people and maybe thinking that you might get lost, but having such a big class was one of the coolest things I have gotten to experience,” Riley said. “I think that’s part of the reason that our team has been so successful, because we have so many veterans who just keep coming back and we know each other all so well.”
Riley was able to separate herself from the group and earn early playing time during her freshman year. She played libero for 24 of the team’s 31 matches and earned Big 12 Rookie of the Week honors (9/20/2010). Even with her early success, Riley recalls her first practice with a laugh.
“I’ve told this story before, but when I came in for my first practice, the first ball that got hit at me, hit me straight in the forehead and knocked me over,” Riley said. “That was a major light bulb that college sports are much faster than high school. It was really cool to be able to play right away and it put a lot into perspective for me because, as freshman, they put a lot on your plate when you first get here. Having school and playing as freshman is a lot, so you grow up pretty fast.”
Riley built on her experience and recorded double-digit digs in all but two matches during her sophomore year, but the team kept falling short, losing several close matches. The team rebounded in an unprecedented way during Riley’s junior year and posted the best winning percentage in program history (26-7, .788).
Individually, Riley set the single-season digs record (613) and became the first player in program history to record at least 600 digs in a season. In addition to reaching the top of the career digs list, her team reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
“Our team attributes a lot of our success to our mental toughness,” Riley said. “My sophomore year we were playing and we were losing all of our games by two points. We weren’t a bad team, we had a ton of talent, we were just losing by two points. We used to go into the locker room and girls would just cry and junior year we would come into the locker room and people would get (upset). There was no crying, everyone wanted to win and it was a different mentality. Soon those two-point games started going our way and that was the major difference.”
With her biggest individual goal behind her and just one more year to leave her mark at Kansas, Riley sees the game with a different mindset.
“Freshman year it was all about the numbers and they tell you that you need to meet these standards and those standards,” Riley said. “Now as a senior, it’s about coming to practice and being with 14 of my best friends for however many hours, getting your laughs in and making all the memories that we have made. Now that I’m a senior we have plenty, so it’s fun.”
They are adding memories daily in the 2013 season - Riley and her teammates have just clinched the Kansas Invitational with what she called their most complete performance of the year. After the tournament awards were presented, the 5-6 libero ran across the court to retrieve a balloon hat in the shape of a Jayhawk from a fan. Smiling her infectious smile, she wore it while signing autographs for the kids in attendance.
Next year, while she attends nursing school, fans will fill the Horejsi Family Athletics Center to watch the Jayhawks and they’ll pass Riley’s picture on the wall, displaying her career records. But that’s not Brianne. No, the real Brianne Riley wants to be remembered as the playful, fun-loving, goofy, smiling teammate who is more than just her number.
“I think the records, those put my name out there more, but I hope when they see my picture up that they don’t automatically think of how many digs I had, but as the crazy kid running around with the bird balloon hat on and having a good time because that’s really what it’s all about,” Riley said. “The winning comes and that’s great and all and the numbers are great, but the memories that you make are really what’s most important. I would rather be remembered for that than any number.”Tune in tonight at 7 p.m. on the Jayhawk Digital Passport and listen live as Riley and the Jayhawks take on K-State in Manhattan, Kan.