Robbi Ryan drove in and out of Sheridan on her way through for Christmas this year. Instead of driving from Tempe, Arizona, back to some of her favorite haunts, she cruised through on her way to Billings, Montana. Her sister hosted Christmas this time.
She’s returned to family for the holidays as much as her schedule’s allowed. Starting for a Pac 12 basketball team affords her limited opportunities for returning home.
It wasn’t long ago that an ambitious Ryan started her prolific Sheridan Broncs career as a special freshman. Over her four years at Sheridan she left a legacy across multiple sports and filled the community at large with pride. Now as a senior starter at Arizona State — where she’s averaging 7.9 points per game for the 10-2 Sun Devils — Ryan has taken time to reflect on her upbringing.
“I loved that sense of community and the support from everyone,” Ryan told the Star-Tribune recently from somewhere on the road. “It’s a small town so everybody knows everybody. I got love and support and they support everyone on the team. It’s really a community to support everyone for a fun experience.”
Of course, Ryan’s teams at Sheridan were easy to love and support. The basketball team made the state semifinals each of Ryan’s first three seasons. Her raw athleticism and talent clearly showed during a promising freshman season. Then came a coaching change, when Jessica Pickett took over the program. Pickett had just moved to Wyoming and saw Ryan as a gift.
“Even as a freshman you could tell she’d set herself apart,” Pickett reflected. “Her work ethic spoke for itself. Her reputation preceded her. She was just a fun, genuinely kind person.”
Ryan committed herself to the game and joined a travel team based in Colorado. Pickett noticed her game really developed after that. As promising as her raw potential alluded to, that didn’t prepare anyone for the gains Ryan made going forward.
“Between her junior and senior year it felt like she took off,” Pickett said. “Her leadership really took off the last couple of years. They would have listened to her as a freshman but she was a little older then and grew into that role. We all knew she’d have a voice and inspire her teammates.”
That leadership culminated into one of Ryan’s favorite moments from her time at Sheridan: a home game against Gillette in her senior year. The whole town came out to watch the rival Camels come to town against one of the state’s most elite players. Ryan had already won one of her two Wyoming Gatorade Player of the Year awards for basketball (she also won one for soccer).
It was billed as the defending state champions versus Wyoming’s most coveted high school player. Both towns seemingly came out to witness.
“It seemed like the whole town would cheer us on,” Ryan remembered.
That time the senior went toe-to-toe with the Camels herself. Gillette somehow escaped with a 70-68 double-overtime win but those in attendance walked away talking about Ryan. She dropped 50 points — well above her 21.8 points per game average and still a school record — on the defending state champions.
As much as Ryan still talks fondly of all the road trips with her former teammates, that game has always stood out to her and those who packed the gym to bear witness.
“We lost that game but she single-handedly just worked and worked to keep us in that game,” Pickett recalled. “She set us up to try and win it. She’s just a special kind of athlete that never stopped.”
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Schools bombarded Pickett with communications. At that point they could easily find film on their own, so they called Pickett to discover what kind of person they’d be getting if they earned Ryan’s commitment. That’s one aspect of the recruiting process that Pickett always enjoyed talking about. She was still a young coach and hadn’t been in touch with that many schools about an athlete before. But she gushed about Ryan at every opportunity.
“That was fun to talk about how genuine of a person she is,” Pickett said. “I was so grateful (because) she’s such an awesome kid.”
Pickett taught across Sheridan’s elementary schools at the time and her students knew she coached Robbi Ryan. They looked up to Ryan. Their dreams came true when Ryan offered to coach them.
“She has such a great heart,” Pickett said. “And a great sense of humor. She’s a fun person to get to know and a wonderful kid. It’s been great fun watching her be successful.”
Ryan chose Arizona State after graduation. She’d already spent time in Denver with family so the campus’ size didn’t come as a culture shock.
What did provide a learning curve was playing in every game as a freshman. Ryan admitted she wasn’t sure what she was getting into when she arrived because the Sun Devils had graduated four guards the year before. So the 5-foot-9 Ryan joined three other guards with the knowledge that they could see big minutes. She filled an important role immediately.
“The Pac 12 is the best conference in the nation so there’s a bunch of the top players in the nation,” Ryan said. “There’s a big learning curve because everybody’s fast and talented. It comes down to fine-tuning your game and adapting.”
Ryan said she’s learned about the minor aspects of the game from head coach Charli Turner Throne. She’s been given the resources to grow in both basketball and life, neither of which she’s taken lightly.
Ryan’s already earned her Bachelor’s Degree in psychology with a minor in African American Studies. She’s currently in a Master’s program along with a final semester as a starting player on a team receiving Top 25 votes. She’s also not taking her eyes off basketball; she fully intends to play professional basketball when her career at Arizona State ends.
Her imprint on basketball and Arizona State could change with another run in the NCAA Tournament. After all, the Sun Devils regularly compete against the best the country has to offer.
Meanwhile, her influence on Sheridan continues to morph in the youth that started idolizing her when she wore the blue and yellow.
“I hope she’s remembered in this town for the girls who look up to her as someone who’s a hard worker and a good person on and off the court,” Pickett said. “She was a good teammate, a good student. As a teacher and lover of the game, that’s the legacy I hope sticks around here.
“She’ll be known as a kid who worked really hard and was kind off the court.”
Even as Ryan’s road trip passed through Wyoming and her aim has remained focused on Arizona State and professional basketball beyond that, she’s carried Wyoming with her. Ryan’s since gotten a detailed tattoo of trees, mountains and the sun that wraps around her right arm.
Explaining Wyoming to others, like her Sun Devil teammates has grown difficult. It’s just tough to put into words.
“Wyoming is just, it’s a fun and unique place to be, especially in a smaller town,” Ryan said. “It’s fun to play around and it’s great to be from a smaller town that offers you something unique.”
Wyoming means everything to her, as a place where she and her parents grew up. It shaped her into who she’s become — an exceptional role model, person and all-conference player. So she’s proudly worn Wyoming like a badge on her arm. An homage to her roots while she continues playing on the big stage.
Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans