Travis Riley came into his senior season with big expectations. After rushing for more than 1,900 yards and 34 touchdowns as a junior, A.L. Brown's star tailback was expecting even bigger and better things in his final high school year after committing to play for North Carolina.
But nearly everything changed in one play in the season opener against Statesville after Riley went down with a knee injury.
"It was a very frustrating experience because I had worked all offseason to get in the best shape of my life," said Riley, who had more than 100 rushing yards and a touchdown on 21 carries against the Greyhounds before getting hurt.
"But it was just a setback. I told my teammates I was going to be back and I worked seven days a week with our trainers and in the weight room to get back."
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Riley made his return last month, easing back into the rotation, running 12 times for 55 yards in a 20-13 win against Northwest Cabarrus.
But Riley's return wasn't complete until he exploded for 152 yards and two touchdowns in 28-21 win against rival Concord in the annual "Battle for the Bell" game.
"Against Northwest, I didn't feel like myself, I was just getting used to being back on the field," Riley said.
"But when I got out there against Concord, it felt amazing. I felt like my old self again and I was able to help my team bring home the bell."
Riley's coach, A.L. Brown's Ron Massey, and his teammates had a similar feeling.
"I think everybody was pulling for Travis to get back because he is a great person and a great football player," said Massey. "It was very gratifying to see him get back and look the way he has."
Riley said that despite what he has done in the past, he is just trying to fit into a backfield that learned to live without him for eight weeks. The quartet of Demetrius Jackson (850-plus yards rushing), Damien Washington (530-plus rushing), Xavier Stanback (430-plus) and quarterback Martel Campbell (530-plus) has combined for more than 2,500 yards rushing and 27 touchdowns this season.
"You can't replace a player like Travis Riley right away, and we didn't try to," said Massey.
"But I think our other guys did a great job of allowing us to still run our offense. We had three guys (Jackson, Washington and Stanback) who really stepped up when Travis was hurt."
But while Massey liked his group of backs, even without Riley, he is glad to have the 6-foot-1, 210-pound bruiser in the backfield again.
"Travis really gives us a bigger back that we can pound up inside," said Massey. "His power will give us something that we were missing going forward."
Massey, who has averaged 11 wins per season in Kannapolis, hopes that this is just the start of a deep playoff run. Their postseason got off to the right start when the Wonders (11-1) defeated South Piedmont Conference foe Hickory Ridge 21-18 in the 3AA playoffs.
The Wonders have done just about everything short of winning a state title in the past few seasons. Brown lost in the state championship in 2008 and fell in the third round to Belmont South Point last season.
"I feel it was a great time to come back because we are in the most important part of our season," said Riley. "I just want to come back and play my role, no matter what that is. Hopefully, we can win a state championship."
But no matter what the Wonders do the rest of the way, Riley's days in Kannapolis are coming to an end. He will graduate early from school next month to attend UNC Chapel Hill, where he starts Jan. 10. While Riley is focused on finishing his Wonder career in style, he is also excited about his Tar Heel future.
"I really am excited about getting there and getting acclimated," said Riley, who took his official visit to North Carolina last weekend during the Virginia Tech game. "Hopefully my best is still to come."