Riley’s Ruminations: Photographer Picks Favorite Athletics Photos From an Unusual Year

June 9, 2021 By Whitelaw Reid, Whitelaw Reid,

From restrictions on where he could stand during games, to limited access to student-athletes and coaches and having to wear a mask as his viewfinder or eyepiece fogged up in cold weather, the pandemic made Matt Riley’s job as the official photographer of University of Virginia athletics difficult.

But Riley said the biggest challenge was not having the assistance of UVA student interns, who in normal times would help him shoot games. And, of course, the stands were far emptier than usual, as fan attendance at most events was extremely limited.

Still, Riley had plenty to do. By his count, he photographed more than 140 UVA athletic events during the 2020-21 academic year and took more than 500,000 images, surpassing his previous high by nearly 200,000.

On some days, Riley would shoot five or six events, walking approximately 10 miles between facilities. He would then get home and have hours of online photo galleries to create, sometimes not getting to bed until 3 or 4 in the morning.

Then he would get to do it all again the next day.

“There were times when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through, but I was thankful to have a job and still tell the story of this amazing place and the student-athletes and coaches that I love,” Riley said. “There were some amazing moments along the way.”

Without further ado, here are some of Riley’s favorites, with his comments:

An Empty Scott Stadium

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Football game in Scotts Stadium with a small crowd in the stands
The return to Scott Stadium was certainly strange. I miss the pageantry and energy that a full stadium brings. It was eerily quiet at times, but as the season progressed it began to feel more normal. Photographing pandemic football allowed for some different angles that under normal times we wouldn’t get, so that was a plus. (I will also miss the non-crowded sidelines and easy parking right at the gate.)

Cutouts Stand In

Cardboard cutouts of fans placed in every seat in John Paul Jones Arena
Going from thousands of screaming fans at John Paul Jones Arena to cardboard cutouts was one of the many differences of sports in a pandemic. I was glad to have a couple of familiar faces (my sons Carter and Evan) in the crowd when I was at JPJ.

Refereeing – and Following the Rules

Basketball Referee sanitizing his gloves with hand sanitizer
This photo sums up 2020 – sanitizer, gloves, masks, etc. There is nothing spectacular about this photo, but it’s one that I think I will always be fond of in remembering this year.

Virtual Portrait Series

phone with a picture of a UVA womens volleyball player holding a volleyball
Trying to get creative was essential during work-from-home days in the pandemic, and trying to figure out ways to produce engaging content. Setting up a mini-studio with UVA props from around the house in my dining room, I FaceTimed with some of our fall sport student-athletes and did a mini-photo shoot through the phone.

Kneeling to Take a Stand

UVA mens basketball team kneel doing the national anthem while bowing their heads except the last player in line(right), he is kneeling but head raised and hand over heart
Part of the story in 2020 revolved around social justice and sparked plenty of conversation and debate. It also provided powerful imagery. Listening, learning and advocating are all things I will take with me from this year.

Carla Williams in the Stands

UVA Staff member sitting at the very top of the stands waving to the camera many rows down
This is one of my favorite shots from the pandemic; Director of Athletics Carla Williams sitting alone atop an empty section at Scott Stadium. All the “V” Sabre seats align and frame up our leader during a rainy afternoon game. Often during this year, Carla and I would be leaving one event and heading to another, and I appreciated those quick moments where we could chat about all the sports we’d been to that day.

Coin Toss

Two Refs tossing coin at the beginning of a football game
I didn’t know it at the time, but this photo became one of my favorites as a time capsule of sports in pandemic. The coin suspended in mid-air almost as if time had stopped. The social distance of the players and referees. Nobody on the hillside. It’s all a bit surreal. However, looking back what is even more striking is that there aren’t TV cameras and photographers around. It’s clean.

Lavel Davis Shines

UVA mens football player dressed in orange uniform with arms crossed staring directly at the camera
Freshman Lavel Davis Jr. burst onto the scene for the football team, as the first-year was named ACC Receiver and Rookie of the Week after becoming the first Cavalier to record 100-plus receiving yards in his collegiate debut when he caught four balls for 101 yards and two touchdowns in the season-opening win against Duke. This was a striking shot to me. I always like how the guys look for me to pose before games. This year was a little different, because not traveling with the team and being around them as much made it a little more difficult to get to know the first-years.

Softball Shoot

UVA Womans Softball player pitching.  the ball is directly where the sun is in the top left
We did a full day of portraits with the softball team at Palmer Park to showcase the facility and get plenty of content for the upcoming season. It was a long day, but the results turned out great. Shooting portraits is one of my favorite things to do because it allows for some creativity and a chance to get to know the student-athletes, all while creating dynamic images.

Almost Normal

UVA Womens Soccer Playing running and screaming with joy
Our first official home event of the fall during the pandemic was a women’s soccer win over Virginia Tech! It was nice to do something that felt almost normal again. From a photo standpoint, this goal celebration from Diana Ordonez quickly made me realize there were some challenges to shooting with a mask on, like the viewfinder fogging up. Luckily I was able to make this image before I couldn’t see anything at all.

Volleyball in Masks

5 Women from UVA sports teams standing together with their arms crossed wearing black masks
As we began to bring student-athletes back to Grounds over the summer, it was hard to know what to expect. My first shoot in months was a simple headshot shoot with the volleyball first-years. After the headshots they all wanted a masked photo in their jerseys. It was the first photograph I had taken of anyone wearing a mask and it was striking when I turned it to black and white.

Leah Boggs Walks it Off

UVA Womens softball player slides into homeplate
I love this photo for several reasons. One, the excitement of a walk-off win is always fun and dramatic. Two, I had spent so much time shooting up high on concourses because of COVID restrictions [that] it was nice to be back on field level and seeing someone’s face instead of the top of the helmet. Three, the subject, Leah, brings a ton of passion and energy and is one of my favorite student-athletes to shoot, but also she embodies the spirit of the UVA softball team and I think with Palmer Park they are going to be a force to be reckoned with very soon. Four, the whole sequence made for a great GIF.

Rowing With a New Challenge

UVA Womens rowing team on the water
I was able to go to rowing practice a couple of times during the pandemic and I’m always amazed at the effort and skill of the team. This year I found a new appreciation for them by rowing in masks. I sometimes got winded running around different athletic venues shooting, so I can imagine how hard that must have been to row in a mask. In shooting this race against Tennessee, I was trying to use the colors in Coach [Kevin] Sauer’s wife’s jackets to give a different look to this image and I really liked it. Trying to find new looks is something I really enjoy in photography.

Kyle Teel Home Run Celebration

UVA Baseball team screaming as the run into a huddle
I love capturing emotion and celebrations, and the baseball receiving line after a home run can always be fun. This was an important midweek game against Liberty, and first-year sensation Kyle Teel delivered a huge home run to help secure a comeback win to help keep the momentum alive for a postseason berth for the baseball team. This is also one of the new angles I found to like at Disharoon Park this year with limited access to the playing field.

The Beauty of Tennis

left: man holding tennis racquet yelling, right: woman preparing to swing her tennis racquet to hit a ball.
I learned to be a sports photographer shooting tennis at my alma mater, Marshall University, so I’ve always had a love for the sport. The fact that both of our tennis programs are top-notch and play in exceptional facilities also makes it fun to cover them. Tennis lends itself to art and incredible emotion. I have so many photos to choose from when it comes to tennis because of the ebbs and flows of momentum; the moments of joy, passion and energy are always flowing.

Men’s Soccer Celebrates

UVA team running across the field cheering and high fiving each other
Plain and simple, capturing a golden goal or the sheer rush of a last-second win is always amazing to shoot.

No-Hitter Memories

Left: UVA mens baseball player walking across field with hat raised in the air.  Right: Man with a child who is holding a baseball from the game
I spent more time at Disharoon Park this year than anywhere else. Baseball is a long game, but there’s a beauty in it. A day at the ballpark lends itself to a ton of imagery. This one was special because Andrew Abbot and the bullpen combined for a no-hitter. It’s the second time I’ve witnessed the feat in person and captured the moment. On this day it was even more special, because my 8-year-old son, Carter, came along with me. He likes to take pictures on his own camera and it was a very cool dad moment to experience the moment with him, even though it was almost a four-hour game and he was asleep in the car about two minutes after leaving the ballpark.

Ian Laviano Relishes the Moment

UVA player laying on the grass with arms above their head
This is my favorite photo of the year. I feel like this is the way I want to celebrate the end of an amazing year. Just lying on the turf taking in the moment and exhaling from what has been a long and trying, yet rewarding journey. This shot of Ian is seconds after the men’s lacrosse team won the national championship, with his teammates jumping around with the trophy in a pile next to him. Instead of going toward the trophy, I paused for a second over top of Ian to take this shot and I’m so glad I did. Of all the amazing photos that day, this one captures what I think a lot of us were feeling from this year.

Swim Grads – and a Special Accessory

NCAA 2021 Division 1 Swimming and Diving National Championship Trophy sitting in front of the Rotunda
One of my favorite things to do every year is to take grad portraits with our student-athletes in the weeks leading up to graduation. It’s not every day you get an NCAA championship trophy to show up for portraits. It’s definitely a nice accessory. I was so happy for the student-athletes and coaches from the swimming program to win this year. I love working with that program and I was bummed I couldn’t be there in person to shoot them winning the championship.

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