Iowa soccer’s Riley Whitaker comes back from ACL injury

The senior defender suffered a torn ACL in September 2020 but returned to the pitch this season.


Dimia Burrell

University of Iowa Defender Riley Whitaker and Mississippi State Forward Hailey Farrington-Bentil both chase the ball up the sideline at UI Soccer Complex on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. The Iowa Hawkeyes and Mississippi State Bulldogs tied 1-1.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

When something went wrong in her right knee, Riley Whitaker remembers crying — not because the Iowa soccer defender was in horrendous pain, but because she felt scared.

At a practice on Sept. 20, 2020, Whitaker felt like she hyperextended her knee in a one-on-one drill. Nevertheless, she kept participating in practice.

In a three-on-two exercise, Whitaker backpedaled on defense. As she turned, Iowa’s 2019 Most Valuable Defender sensed something shifting in her right knee.

The next day, Whitaker went to the doctor’s office to have her leg examined. Her doctor called her soon with her diagnosis — she had a torn ACL.

Just days later, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics orthopedic surgeon Kyle Duchman performed surgery on Whitaker’s right knee to repair the damage.

Ultimately, she was sidelined for about 10 months with the injury.

“At the beginning, I was just focused on getting full range of motion back when I was still on the crutches, and then started walking again and getting form back,” Whitaker said. “Then, the main focus for the whole rest of the time was mainly getting quad strength back because that was the biggest issue I had coming back.”

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Whitaker was sidelined her entire junior year season, which had been moved to spring 2021 because of COVID-19. She made her presence felt from the bench, however, cheering on her teammates and distributing high-fives.

“She was definitely just a good support system and a rock for the team,” senior defender Sara Wheaton said. “So, that was really a big role that she played.”

When Whitaker participated in a return-to-play test at the beginning of this summer, she initially discovered that she was not quite ready to hit the pitch again.

With guidance from a physical therapist, however, Whitaker found a way to pass the return-to-play test just three days before Iowa kicked off its preseason schedule.

Whitaker played in her first game since 2019 on Sept. 2 of this year — 347 days after sustaining her knee injury and 656 days after her last pre-injury match. The senior defender contributed to a 5-0 Iowa win over Purdue-Fort Wayne.

Whitaker checked in at the 26-minute mark in the Hawkeyes’ matchup with the Mastodons at the Iowa Soccer Complex in Iowa City. She received thunderous applause from Iowa fans and recorded an assist just four minutes into her stint on the pitch.

“At the beginning, it took some time to get past that mental barrier,” Whitaker said. “I would think about it too much and be like, ‘If I go into a tackle, something could happen, or like my speed isn’t there,’ so I think just getting past that mental barrier, once I got past it, it’s been really good.”

A week after stepping back out on the field, Whitaker started her first match of the season at Kansas City, helping the Hawkeyes to a 2-0 victory.

Whitaker has noticed that her timing has been off since she returned to the field, though she thinks it will come back as she gets more chances to play this year.

“I thought she’d be nervous,” Iowa head coach Dave DiIanni said of Whitaker’s start against Kansas City. “She wasn’t nervous at all. I think the one thing with Riley is soccer, reading the game, has always come easy to her. She’s a natural. She reads the game. She adapts technically and tactically, so there are areas of her game like she had never missed at all.”