This past weekend was Homecoming at the University of Richmond, with the return of alumni from years past, but one Spider alum’s homecoming was a few days late.
Spider soccer standout Ashley Riefner returned to Richmond’s campus on Wednesday evening for the first time in nearly six months after completing her first professional season in Finland.
The 2016 graduate surprised her teammates at Wednesday night’s practice as they prepared to take on La Salle in an important Atlantic 10 matchup.
“I don’t think I’ve been on this field since we beat VCU on my Senior Day last season, which was around this time last year. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve played here.”
Despite graduating, Riefner continued her soccer career abroad, signing a professional contract with PK-35 Vantaa of the Finnish Women’s League. She became the fourth player in women’s soccer program history to earn a professional contract, joining Jaclyn Raveia (’01), Edda Gardarsdottir (’03) and Olina Vidarsdottir (’04).
“It was important for us to find a player who is fast, skillful, attack-oriented and can play in multiple positions, and that’s exactly what we got with Rief,” PK-35 head coach Jari Väisänen said. “We got the player that we had been looking for. She has fit in wonderfully with the team, and has shown that she is an amazing team player.”
Riefner and PK-35, a team that had won the Finnish Women’s League the past two seasons, won the league for a third-straight year in September with two games left to play. This past week, the team took it a step further, winning the Finnish Cup to earn the “Double”.
The Finnish Cup is a single-elimination tournament that started at the beginning of the season and ended with the Final on October 16. Riefner and her team faced FC Honka – the third-place finisher in the Finnish Women’s League – and took a commanding 2-0 win after scoring once in each half.
“FC Honka is really good, so we knew it would be a very tough and aggressive game,” Riefner said. “We came out and controlled possession. It was a pretty dominating performance.”
Riefner hopes to return to Finland next year for her second professional season, after recently being offered another contract from PK-35, who secured its spot in the UEFA Champions League next year, a cup competition for the European league champions from each country.
“I really want to return to PK-35 next year because it’s taught me a lot about myself and soccer. Living in a foreign country is definitely an eye-opening experience, and I think I want to spend one more season in Finland and see how things play out.”
“She gets along with every player, and it’s been rewarding to see how she has found her place on the team,” Väisänen said of Riefner. “She’s an important part of how we play the game and brings some new opportunities with her individual skills and her personality.”
For now, she will spend some much-needed time with her former Spider teammates. Wednesday night’s surprise was a long-awaited reunion for both Riefner and the Spiders.
“These girls are my best friends, so when I found out I could switch my flight to come back a little earlier, I knew I wanted to surprise them,” she said. “It was really hard to keep a secret from them, because I talk to them every day.”
Her former teammates responded with excitement, as Riefner emerged after the warmup to spend the remainder of practice with the Spider soccer team.
“It’s awesome having Rief back here,” senior captain Meaghan Carrigan said after the surprise. “She was a great player here, and it brought more energy to practice having her around.”
Riefner’s return added a spark to the Spiders’ training, and for her brought back what she had been missing the most over the past six months.
“Going to a place where you don’t know a single person and you don’t know the language makes you really miss the closeness and the camaraderie you have with your teammates. After a while I did form that with my team in Finland, so it became easier, but I still miss my team. Soccer is awesome, but just being with them was what I really missed the most.”