When Riley McGowan was 5 years old, she would put her lacrosse helmet on in the car as her dad drove to practice. She was hiding her ponytail from the rest of the team, so they couldn’t tell she was a girl.
Her dad was a coach for a boys lacrosse team in Souderton, Pennsylvania. The town didn’t have any girls lacrosse leagues at the time, leading McGowan to play with her brother on the boys team.
“I still kind of have a boys playing style, which serves me well now because the game is kind of evolving,” McGowan said. “But when I first transitioned over to girls lacrosse, it was a totally different game.”
McGowan learned to become a tough attacker with a strong shot while growing up playing with her dad and brother, and that mentality has helped her recover from an ACL injury she suffered last year. Now, the Temple University lacrosse junior attacker has a new perspective about the game and has realized her passion for strength and conditioning.
After missing all of last season, McGowan made her first appearance in Temple’s exhibition game against Towson University on Feb. 5. Since then she’s played in 13 of 14 games for the Owls and is the team’s third-leading scorer with 27 goals.
“I remember walking on the field and all the parents freaked out,” McGowan said. “People were tearing up on the sidelines. I had just gone through the toughest recovery ever, it was not as easy as I thought it was gonna be.”
During a practice in November 2020, McGowan was playing one-vs-one with a teammate. As she looked for an open shot on goal, the 5-foot-11-inch attacker planted awkwardly on her foot and realized something was wrong.
“I just planted, felt no pain,” McGowan said. “Then I just laid on the ground, and I was in shock. It didn’t really hurt because it tore all the way through, so I just kind of laid there and knew what happened.”
The Owls’ trainer went over to McGowan, who was cradling her knee and helped her off the field. Shortly after, McGowan texted her parents “I think I just tore my ACL.” McGowan said the emotions hit her after the MRI. The results of a torn ACL in her right leg paved a difficult road to recovery.
The next two weeks were tough for McGowan, but the real mental challenge came once Temple’s season started. Seeing her friends and teammates get ready for a game, while McGowan watched, took a toll on her ability to focus.
“I definitely was checked out a lot,” McGowan added. “Just sitting in practice was really hard and then at the games I tried to be positive, and it was easier to have fun at the games, but it was also kind of like a double-edged sword because I was really bummed out.”
After McGowan underwent surgery during fall break in 2020, she stayed at home from most of the month of November through December. During those days, her dad would carry her down to the basement and help her lift small weights on crutches.
“I just felt lost,” McGowan added. “I had a hurt knee, so I wasn’t playing lacrosse. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, major wise. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was never applying myself to school and then when my knee happened, I wasn’t applying myself to that.”
As soon as she started walking again, McGowan returned to campus. Her strength and conditioning coach, at the time, Sam Whitney, helped her reconnect with fitness training. He sat down with McGowan and said “Nothing’s gonna happen if you’re not going to put your mind to it.”
After that conversation, she worked out with Whitney everyday. Whether it was doing physical therapy rehab, like band stretches, or minor running drills, McGowan’s progress became motivation.
“Seeing the difference that it was making in my knee and how fast I was coming back, it was really exciting and motivating for me,” McGowan said.
It also opened another door — McGowan always had an interest in strength and conditioning, but she didn’t realize it was her passion until last year.
She started applying herself in both areas following the recovery process. Besides lacrosse practice, McGowan works as a strength and conditioning coach and lacrosse instructor at Commit To Improve, a training center for female athletes in Oaks, Pennsylvania.
McGowan competed in full-contact practices in the first two weeks after last December’s winter break.
Her career-best performance came against Vanderbilt University on April 2 where she netted seven goals and found a new level of confidence. She tries to not let her injury get the best of her, even though there are days she might be scared to dodge off her right knee.
“I have this huge brace on,” McGowan said. “It makes me feel a lot more secure, but I definitely could have come out and been kind of scared and a skittish player from it. I’m glad that I also had that game where I performed well, because that gave me a lot more confidence to go now for the rest of the season.”
Head coach Bonnie Rosen believes McGowan had two weeks of solid practice time leading up to the game against the Commodores. She said when McGowan is given space inside the circle, she’s going to put the ball by the goalkeeper everytime.
“We can develop her right now,” Rosen said. “She’s got this nice, powerful shot, she’s got a couple moves that she can free herself up on but she’s starting to become more of an integral passer and feeder for us and then I’m hoping that we can develop her to become a leader for our team.”