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Inspired by Jackie Stiles, Iowa State's Emily Ryan making her hometown hero proud

Tommy Birch
Des Moines Register

AMES, Ia. — The oldest picture Iowa State freshman Emily Ryan has stored on her phone is one of her favorites.

It’s Ryan when she was in second grade attending a basketball camp run by basketball star Jackie Stiles. Ryan was first in line to get a photo that day. More than a decade later, Ryan still scrolls through her phone to look at the photo. 

“I see it and it makes me smile every time,” Ryan said.

That was the day Ryan truly fell in love with basketball. Ryan, from Claflin, Kan., finally got to meet her hometown basketball hero. Ryan realized then and there that she wanted to be exactly like Stiles and do whatever it took to become a basketball star.

Emily Ryan got to meet basketball star Jackie Stiles when she was in second grade. Both of them are from Claflin, Kansas.

“That was a special day for me,” Ryan said.

Ryan is accomplishing that goal. She not only became a star in Claflin like Stiles, but she’s also establishing herself as one of college basketball’s best young point guards.

Ryan is just 10 games into her college career, but she has already earned a starting spot for the Cyclones and began the week leading the Big 12 Conference in assists with 6.45 per game. 

She’s carving out her own legacy while trying to follow in the famous footsteps of her basketball idol.

“She’s just a phenomenal talent,” Stiles said. “I’m just blessed to be able to watch her career.”

A fan for life

It’s easy to see why Ryan gravitated toward Stiles, arguably the Kansas town’s most famous native. Claflin has just over 600 residents. It’s so small that when Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly made his first recruiting visit to the town to see Ryan play, he stopped at the local grocery store to buy a pop. Right away, the cashier knew he was there to see Ryan, who became a must-see attraction on the court. 

For years, coaches from across the country visited Claflin, Kansas, to watch Jackie Stiles play basketball. Iowa State freshman Emily Ryan, who is also from Claflin, grew up idolizing her.

For years, coaches across the country came to see Stiles. Stiles was a star at Claflin High School, where she became an All-American. She went on to play at Southwest Missouri State before being selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2001 WNBA Draft. Stiles was voted the league’s Rookie of the Year but had her professional career derailed by injuries. Ryan watched it all unfold. 

“When I was in grade school, it was a little bit obsessive,” Ryan said of her infatuation with Stiles.

One of Ryan's most prized possessions was a DVD of one of Stiles’ high school games. Stiles’ father, Pat, who later coached Ryan at Central Plains High School, gave Ryan a copy. Ryan would grab her mother’s computer and shut the door to her bedroom to keep her siblings away so she could focus and play it over and over.

Meeting Stiles was a big moment. It happened in second grade. After seeing a brochure for one of Stiles' camps, Ryan convinced her parents to make the hourlong drive to a one-day camp run by the basketball star. Ryan said she barely slept the night before. The camp included tutelage from Stiles and a meet-and-greet and photo opportunity. Ryan got it all. She was never the same, Ryan's father, Jim, said. 

"You just saw the more competitive side in her, to strive to do well," Jim said. 

Ryan latched on to the sport and never let go. 

During Emily Ryan's four seasons at Central Plains, the team compiled a 104-0 record.

'The ultimate gym rat'

Basketball became an obsession. When she was in third grade, Ryan signed up for a talent show. Other kids sang and danced. Ryan, who spent hours practicing in her garage, performed ball-handling on stage. 

"She was flawless," Jim said.

The hard work never stopped. Ryan was devoted to getting better. She begged her dad to take her to school early to get in shots. Jim, a teacher, would take Emily to school around 7 a.m., each day. When she could eventually drive, he gave her a set of keys to the school. Pat Stiles got so accustomed to seeing her in school early that the few days he arrived and didn't see her working out, he got worried. 

"The ultimate gym rat," Stiles said. 

The hard work paid off. Ryan started becoming a star around town. When Pat Stiles needed a player to fill in on a tournament team over the summer before Ryan's eighth-grade year, he called on her. During an impressive showing, Stiles realized he may have another star on his hands.

He was right. 

Ryan earned a starting spot on the Central Plains High School team as a true freshman. She guided her team to state titles in her freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. During her four seasons there, Central Plains compiled a 104-0 record. The team was on its way to a fourth state title before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the remainder of the state tournament. Ryan averaged 27.4 points per game as a senior and finished her career as one of just three players in state history to score 3,000 points. The other two: Laurie Koehn and Jackie Stiles. 

"Just being able to be mentioned in that same conversation is a true honor and it just shows that hard work will pay off," Ryan said. 

Jackie Stiles had heard plenty about Ryan. Ryan's dad, a longtime coach, often rebounded for Stiles when she was younger. As Ryan made her way up through the high school ranks, Stiles' dad would text her the young player's stats after every game. 

"I was very aware of how special Emily Ryan was very early on," Stiles said.

Iowa State guard Emily Ryan (11) handles the ball during an NCAA college basketball game against TCU in Fort Worth, Texas, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

A star from the start at Iowa State

The hard work hasn't stopped. Fennelly said she's one of the most frequent visitors to the team's practice facility. The day after Iowa State's Jan. 3 loss at Texas, the Cyclones came in for COVID-19 testing at 7 a.m. Just 20 minutes after the testing, Ryan was in the gym shooting. It has been like that from the start of her tenure in Ames. During the quarantine, Ryan and some of her roommates drove around Ames looking for hoops to shoot on. When Iowa State's facility became available, she texted Josh Carper, the team's director of basketball operations daily, to be let in. 

"She loves to play," Fennelly said. "She's a throwback." 

Ryan burst into Iowa State's starting lineup as soon as the season began. The adjustment has been smooth. She is averaging 6.9 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in addition to the assists. Ryan showcased her ability to score during a lopsided win over Drake when she poured in 20 points. 

"It's been an absolute blast," Ryan said. 

Iowa State freshman guard Emily Ryan fires a three-pointer in the third quarter against Drake on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at Hilton Coliseum in Ames.

Now it's Stiles who has been watching it all unfold. Stiles, an assistant at Oklahoma, recruited Ryan to play for the Sooners. But by the time she was hired in 2019, Ryan was well on her way to Ames.

Stiles said Ryan has landed at the perfect place. One game she's not looking forward to is Oklahoma's trip to Ames on Jan. 19. 

"It's the one time I will be rooting against her for sure," Stiles said with a laugh.

Stiles still holds a special place in Ryan's heart. She still looks at the picture and still has the shirt from the camp she got that day. For Stiles, it has been just as rewarding knowing she's had such a positive impact on Ryan. 

"I am so touched that she felt that way after coming to my camp," Stiles said. 

Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at tbirch@dmreg.com or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.