SHERIDAN — When Rachel Ryan was a Lady Bronc, everyone who played her said she was too physical.
That was her 18-yard box at Sheridan High School, and if you were going to come in for a header, Ryan would let you know she was there.
She admits it wasn’t always the most popular style of play.
“I grew up playing football with the boys, and I got in trouble for being what some people thought was too physical as a goalie,” Ryan said. She played for the Lady Broncs, graduating in 2008 (she was also on the Lady Broncs the last time SHS won a state basketball title in 2007). “I guess I was just born that way, I just like the contact.”
She has found a sport in rugby where no one will whine about someone being “too physical.” And, as is typical for the Ryan family on the athletic field, she’s pretty darn good at it.
Now a senior at the University of Wyoming, Ryan is on her way to the Elite Top 60 rugby tryout, where she has a chance at making the U.S. women’s national team.
After SHS, she enrolled at UW where she found her love for rugby in the second semester of her freshman year. Her friend Megan Degenfelder introduced her to the sport after the two had played against each other in high school when Degenfelder played for Natrona.
“I’d never heard of it or played it or even watched it, so when I showed up to practice it was like a foreign language to me, but I found out that you go to kick and you got to run and that you got to tackle,” Ryan said.
But there was a learning curve. Soccer and basketball are sports where the end goal of the contest is clear: score and win. In Rugby things aren’t always that simple.
“I picked it up fairly quickly, but it took me a while to understand the end result, the end goal, so it was frustrating to me because I didn’t understand it right away. When it finally clicked, I was like this game is awesome.
“It’s strategy. It’s strength. I really love the team aspect of it — how you have to play smart, and everybody has a role. Everybody has that slight craziness to them. I really love the people who play rugby.”
From there, it was all downhill. Playing with the club UW women’s team, they battle the weather to get in games, raising their own money to travel and find schools with enough players to compete with. But they reached the Division II Elite 8 last year, the farthest any team has gone in the program’s history, she always stood out to U-19 and U-20 national coaches who saw her play along the way.
“It was kind of one step after another, just in the right place at the right time,” she said.
Ryan has been back home a lot this semester, her last at UW, while she student teaches, working toward her degree in physical education. She was honored at the a national physical education and arts convention in North Carolina just last week after being selected as recipient for “Major of the Year” out of the UW Physical Education Department.
But she loves playing rugby, so she works hard to find a place to play, something that can be a challenge.
While student teaching at both SHS and at Meadowlark Elementary in Buffalo, she drives every weekend to Denver to play for the Glendale premier league team. When they aren’t playing at home, they fly out of Denver to Minnesota and California, among others, to play on the weekends.
On top of all of that, there’s still her goal of playing for the U.S.
She was just in Minnesota for the Elite Olympic Training Top 80 Camp, where she made the cut for the Top 60 camp which will be held May 26. Now she’ll play on a squad and get evaluated for the national team.
Ryan graduates next weekend in Laramie, and she’d like to get her teaching certificate in Colorado so she can continue playing in Denver. That is of course if she’s not playing with the women’s national team in France, where they’ll tour this summer.
When she’s playing at the national level her position is called “hooker” — the player who’s in the middle of the scrum and hooks the ball back to maintain possession, also restarting play when the ball goes out of bounds by throwing the ball to jumpers.
Rugby is a free-flowing sport most of the time, so positions aren’t as clear-cut as in something like basketball or soccer. Overall, Ryan has learned that while she enjoys the physicality of the sport, there’s much more to it.
“You do have to play smarter instead of harder the higher you go because there’s always going to be someone just as strong and just as fast,” she said. “You have to put yourself in a good position so you don’t get hurt. It’s a tough sport to have a lot of longevity.
“I’ve learned to use the six inches above your head before you use your body.”