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MKA seniors Alexis Riley (left- Holy Cross for women's soccer) and Alina Smith (Lehigh- women's volleyball) are two of the latest Cougars to prepare for the next level through solid work in and out of the classroom. The pair finalized their college choices during the NCAA National Signing Day period (Nov.13-20) while family were on hand to enjoyspecial moment. (Sideline Chatter photos)

Alina Smith (clapping, top photo) has been inspriational leader for the MKA girls volleyball squad, while Alexis Riley (2) was end-to-end leader for Cougar girls soccer team that reached the Non-Public, North B state sectional final. Both girls signed their National Letters of Intent on Nov. 13. Alina was joined by her parents Carlaina Bell and Alan Smith, while among those with Alexis were, from left in front, parents Lori and David Riley and in rear: head coach Jordan Raper, freshman sister Morgan and Cougar assistant Carlie Till. (photos by Doug Allen, Gene Nann and Sideline Chatter)

From MKA To The Patriot League
Is Perfect Fit For 2 Cougar Seniors

By Steve Tober

MONTCLAIR- Montclair Kimberley Academy is one of those few New Jersey high schools that can actually talk about having had a select few of its former athletes reach the pinnacle. After all, graduates Sean Jones (Northeastern University, NFL - Super Bowl XXX1 Champion Green Bay Packers DE) and Frank Herrmann (Harvard, Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians pitcher) both reached the top level in their respective sport, while two other supreme athletes who attended MKA but did not graduate from the Montclair private school – current Brooklyn Nets NBA star Kyrie Irving and world-class soccer goalkeeper Tim Howard – also spent the early part of their scholastic careers at MKA before moving on to other stops in their career paths that have included being near the very top of their sport.

Of course, a career outside of being paid to play his or her favorite sport is simply a reality for most and – fortunately – there are top-notch school settings such as at MKA where the transition from scholastic to collegiate academics and athletics can be a smooth one because of all-around preparation.

For two of the latest MKA seniors to participate in the NCAA National Signing period (Nov. 13-20) for their respective sports – Alexis Riley in soccer and Alina Smith in volleyball – that transition from MKA to their respective Patriot League schools (Holy Cross and Lehigh) should come without a hitch, other than the typical adjustment period for college freshmen, thanks in large measure to the academic and athletic preparation they’ve had in ‘Cougarville.’

“If I hadn’t come here (at MKA) I don’t think I’d be as prepared as I feel that I am for the next four years,” said Riley, a standout center midfielder and center back as a 4-year starter for the Cougars. “I’m excited to be moving on to Holy Cross and MKA has prepared me in the best way possible.

“As soon as I stepped onto the Holy Cross campus I knew it was where I wanted to be for the next four years.”

As far as a future career, perhaps it will be Dr. Riley one day since the MKA senior is considering studying pre-med with an eye toward getting into the field of orthopedics.

“I’d like to become an orthopedic surgeon, perhaps in the area of ankles or hips,” said Riley with a smile, adding, “I’ve had a lot of soccer-related ankle injuries through the years!”

As far as becoming a Holy Cross Crusader, Riley will become a member of a rising program that is guided by 2019 Patriot League Coach of the Year Casey Brown, finished 5-4-8 this past fall, marking the program’s first winning season since 2014 and first above .500 campaign in the Patriot League since 2000.  

Riley, who said she is slated to play wing back in college, was as starting back as a key sophomore starter for MKA’s Essex County, prep B and Non-Public B tournament co-championship squad in 2017. She served as a tri-captain on this past fall’s 8-9-1 team that finished with gusto, knocking off top-seeded Newark Academy, 1-0, in double overtime in the Non-Public, North B state sectional semifinals before falling on penalty kicks (3-1) at Saddle River Day in the North B final after a 1-1 tie vs. the Bergen County team through 100 minutes of soccer.

The Cougars were very stingy defensively led by Riley and fellow seniors Arianna Jobst, who is one of the top goalkeepers in North Jersey, and Ciara Daly, who had a very solid 2019 campaign.

“Alexis is one of the best outside backs I’ve ever coached and has played for me with (club team) ‘Match Fit’ since she was 12,” said MKA head girls coach Jordan Raper. “She never stops running, is great going forward to score goals or make crosses and is a ‘new age’ outside back who I believe will excel at the college level.” 

Volleyball standout Smith was happy to join Riley in the Wednesday, Nov. 13th signing day ceremony in the MKA Fairleigh Dickinson Gymnasium at the upper school as both were wearing smiles as they greeted each other before exchanging spots at the signing table with their coaches, parents and teammates.

“MKA has prepared me for this opportunity,” said Smith. “I feel fortunate to have gone to a school like this where academics come first but sports are both fun and competitive at the same time.

“I loved the Lehigh campus atmosphere and diversity there right away and the coaches and team were so welcoming.

“They told me that if I continue to work hard over the next nine months that I potentially could play as a freshman. Whatever happens my first year I plan on putting in the necessary time and commitment to be the best I can be both on and off the court.”

Lehigh, under the guidance of head coach Alexa Keckler, finished 20-8 in 2018,  and then went through the rigors of a 13-16 rebuilding season this fall with 11 underclassmen on the 16-member roster. 

“It was more of transition season with a younger team,” said Smith. “I look forward to being one of the freshmen stepping in this fall as the program continues on the rise.”   

A rangy 5-foot-11 force as a middle hitter, Smith blossomed in volleyball after deciding to devote all her sports energy to the spikers’ game after leaving basketball behind as a varsity sport in which she had also excelled in at MKA.

“I realized how happy I was playing volleyball and the passion for the game I felt on the court,” said Smith, who is very adept at attacking with kills and blocks around the net. “I love the closeness you develop with the other girls while working as hard as you can as a unit and I enjoy being a vocal leader as well.”

Smith had a somewhat late start to volleyball in the modern club travel ball era as she didn’t start up with the sport until her freshman year; however, that didn’t hinder her in progressing quickly in the game she has grown to love.

“I was thrilled when she came out for volleyball because I saw all her potential there right away,” said MKA head coach Molli Dowd. “Everything clicked for her, she was a dedicated and hard worker and has been a joy to coach.

“She was elected captain her senior year and unfortunately suffered an ankle injury on the second day of pre-season which she had to recuperate from before joining us.
“We had an up-and-down first few weeks, but when she returned to the lineup  we just took off and I couldn’t believe the change in energy in the whole room when she came back against West Caldwell Tech (on Sept.27) and after her first kill the whole room went wild and her teammates - especially all the younger kids - just lit up.”

MKA, which started the fall at 2-8 without Smith in the lineup, finished winning nine of its final 13 matches to finish a highly-respectable 11-12 before falling to Pope John, 2-0, in the NJSIAA Non-Public state tournament on Nov. 4th.

“With her back on the court with us we had a great second half to our season,” continued Dowd. “She’ll be a great addition to the Lehigh program and the university itself!”

Smith has aspirations of being part of the athletic world in other ways after college.
“I’m looking forward to see where my studies take me, but I’d like to become involved in either sports marketing or sports medicine,” she said. “Having been through a variety of some great classes here at MKA I feel I’m ready to make those decisions down the line.”   

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister

Alexis Riley (top photo) gets together with her MKA girls soccer coach Jordan Raper on her big National Signing Day with The College of Holy Cross at the Montclair school, while Alina Smith celebrates her commitment to Lehigh as she is joined by her Cougars volleyball coach Molli Dowd . (Sideline Chatter photos)

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