Providence girls basketball coach Bill Smith knows that when Casey Rieger says her return to the game is about having fun, it’s a bit of a relative term. After all, for Rieger, that typically translates into some pretty impressive success.
As a sophomore, Rieger was one of the area’s breakout basketball stars. She earned all-Southwestern 4A conference honors as a forward after averaging 12 points and eight rebounds per contest. She joined Emily Franklin to form a strong frontcourt that helped the Panthers enjoy a resurgent season with a 13-14 record.
But basketball was Rieger’s second-favorite sport, as she also was an accomplished volleyball player. Though the high school volleyball season is held in the fall, the club-volleyball circuit begins in the winter with out-of-town tournaments and after-school practices filling players’ schedules.
Suddenly, there wasn’t enough of Rieger’s time to go around, so she made the difficult decision to step away from basketball her junior year, as did Franklin and standout guard Elena Covert, now a softball player at North Carolina.
“I wanted to focus on volleyball a lot more junior year,” said Rieger. “With school, everyone says junior year is the hardest, so that was a big factor (in stepping away from basketball).”
The move certainly paid off for the volleyball program. In 2011, the Panthers won the Class 4A state title with Rieger leading the way. Her 316 kills as an outside hitter also earned her conference player-of-the-year honors.
“When she said (she wasn’t going to play basketball) last year, we certainly understood,” Smith said. “We asked her if we could work around the volleyball because a lot of the club season she does is during basketball season as well. That’s what we do with a lot of our volleyball players: We’ll work with them in the practice season and split some time with them.
“It was hard last year, but we certainly said, ‘Hey, if you don’t want to play, we’re not going to force you to. We want you to be out here; we don’t want you to feel like you have to be out here.’”
But as fortuitous as the decision was for the volleyball program, it was equally devastating for Smith’s basketball program. The Panthers followed their 13-14 season with a 6-18 effort last season as several underclassmen were forced into action.
Rieger said she regretted her decision at times last season, especially while watching games from the stands. Despite the losses, Rieger said she could tell the players were enjoying themselves. The team’s record hardly reinforced her choice.
“It was harder because I knew I could’ve made a difference,” Rieger said. “It may not have been the biggest (difference), but I guess I could’ve added a little something.”
Rieger said at that point, she decided to make her absence from basketball more of a one-year hiatus rather than a full-fledged retirement, and she began telling the players she would return for her senior season.
“But as it got closer to the season starting, I started to second-guess myself,” said Rieger. “I wanted to choose the easy way out and be lazy and enjoy my senior year with friends, but I love all these girls. Even during tryouts, I was still just kind of testing the waters because I hadn’t played in a year and a half, so (I was wondering), ‘Am I going to be fine playing and well-conditioned?’
“But once I got out there, it was fine. When we scrimmaged, I remembered how much I loved it.”
So far, Rieger seems to have picked up where she left off as a sophomore. In the season opener against Hopewell, Rieger scored 13 points with 13 rebounds, two steals and two blocks. She was held to just three points and four rebounds in the Panthers’ 77-23 loss to Porter Ridge but regrouped to have her best game of the season (and her team’s first win) against Nation’s Ford (S.C.) on Nov. 30, finishing with 19 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 64 percent from the floor. On the year, she’s averaging team highs of 11.7 points, nine rebounds, 1.7 steals and 2.3 blocks per game this season for the 1-2 Panthers.
Rieger said the biggest obstacle has been getting her body back into basketball shape.
“I’m getting there,” Rieger said. “It’s only the first two or three weeks of the season, so I’ve got time. I work out on the weekends, and I love to run and go outside and everything. (I love) just being part of a team in basically any sport. I just go out and play. It’s not adjusting to the fundamentals or anything. I just play by instinct.”
Any questions about how the returning players would accept Rieger back into the program were answered when she was voted a captain before the season.
“She stepped right into the role to the point where she was humble,” Smith said. “She wasn’t trying to take over or anything, but quickly the girls have watched her work ethic in practice and voted her a captain for this year. She’s really inspiring girls with her work ethic.
“That’s been real inspirational to the girls. They easily look up to her now as a leader from that standpoint, not just her basketball ability.”
And with the hard work, said Smith, has come Rieger’s “basketball I.Q.”
“She’s already come to me several times (asking), ‘Coach, what am I doing? I know what I need to do, but it’s just not happening,’” said Smith. “I think that’s just a matter of reps. She doesn’t work at basketball year-round like she does volleyball.
Now that she’s immersed in it, she’s just going to, in my opinion, just get better and better each week. We’ve already seen that.”
Rieger’s participation, however, came with a caveat, as she still is going to participate in club volleyball, which means she’ll probably be stretched rather thin again this winter. Saturday, Dec. 1 marked the beginning of her club volleyball season, and she had a pair of four-hour practices over the weekend.
But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“At times like that, after a big game on Friday and a full week of games, it’s kind of tough because this is just the beginning and I know it’s only going to get harder from here,” said Rieger. “But I love what I do. Coming out for games is fun and being part of multiple teams is awesome. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”