Near the intersection of KS-4 and KS-156 sits Claflin, Kansas, home to roughly 700 residents, Miller’s of Claflin furniture store, Squeegy’s Bar & Grill, a few churches and one of the best female high school basketball players in the country.
Like the rest of her town, Emily Ryan has a humble background. She’s a junior at Central Plains High School, which has about 85 total students. Her parents met in Claflin while both teaching in the town, and Emily is the fourth of their five children, all athletes. Other than occasional trips elsewhere, Ryan has never known anywhere but her family farm in Claflin.
“When people ask what you want to do on a Friday night, it’s usually just drive around, listen to music and talk,” she said. “We don’t really have much else to do. Sometimes we like to run over to McDonald’s and fun stuff like that.”
To get to the closest McDonald’s is a 20-minute drive well outside of Claflin, though, a detail fit for a town most would submit as the definition of the middle of nowhere.
But that’s not the case for sports. Central Plains is a factory for state championships in multiple sports, but its domination in girl’s basketball is on another level. The program has won five-straight 2A Kansas state championships, won 108-straight games and is in the midst of another undefeated season as it pushes for yet another state title.
Ryan hasn’t been around for all of it, but she’s been the program’s centerpiece since her arrival. She is yet to lose a high school game, and she consistently puts up video game numbers. Per game as a sophomore, Ryan averaged 37.2 points, 7.7 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 6.3 steals, as well as shooting at a 69-percent clip and 95 percent from the foul line, all in 24 minutes per contest.
“She sees the floor so well,” said Pat Stiles, who is in his seventh season as the head coach at Central Plains. “She passes better than any high school kid I’ve ever seen. She makes some incredible passes to her teammates, and that’s where I say, ‘Whoa, how did she even see that person?’”
For as much as she takes over offensively, her dominance on defense can’t be overlooked. Stiles said she is always aggressive, and as a freshman, it would occasionally get her in foul trouble, the only feasible way an opposing team could slow her down. But now she’s only averaging 1.1 fouls per game, and opponents are stuck.
“One of these days, I’m going to look back and see how special it was,” Stiles said.
It was Stiles’s own daughter, Jackie, who helped inspire Ryan to reach these heights. Before she went on to break the Division-I career scoring record at Missouri State in 2001, was drafted fourth overall in the 2001 WNBA Draft or played a few professional seasons, Jackie grew up with a basketball in her hand in Claflin, just like Ryan.
“I went to (her) camp back in second grade, and that’s when I really knew I wanted to play basketball,” Ryan said. “I’ve looked up to her ever since.”
Everybody knows everybody in towns like Claflin, so naturally the Ryan and Stiles families have had a relationship for many years, including Ryan’s father holding an assistant role for the elder Stiles for years. Ryan and Jackie Stiles, who has been an assistant with Missouri State’s women’s program since 2013, still have a relationship, and both Stiles have played crucial roles in molding Ryan into the machine she has become.
“Hearing stories about her work ethic, how she’s always in the gym and 1,000 makes a day, that made me understand the amount of work it takes to be successful in the sport,” Ryan explained. “Then playing under Coach Pat Stiles is a dream come true because he’s the best coach in the state by far. It’s an honor to be able to learn from him every day in practice.”
Before she came close to high school, though, Ryan gained a competitive edge from her own blood. She comes from a line of athletes, and she said her siblings would have three-on-two basketball games that would get so heated that now the family sticks to horse or free throw competitions.
“It wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary to end with punches being thrown, usually no contact being made fortunately, some shoving. We had some balls thrown at each other,” she said. “After you give it 10, 15 minutes, we were back to being best of buds.”
News of the Ryan family wars spread outside their farm.
“I’ve heard of their knockdown drag outs, the famous Ryan three-on-two games,” Ryan’s coach said. “In fact, the dad says they’re better off playing ping pong or volleyball. Basketball is where it gets pretty heated.”
For the intensity and leadership Ryan shows with the rock in her grip, she’s calm off the court. Pat Stiles doubles as a teacher at Central Plains and has Ryan in two of his classes. In the classroom, he described his student as quiet. When Ryan is relaxing at home, she likes to bake, particularly on snow days. But even that draws parallels to her approach on the court.
“I don’t like to go to a store and buy cookies. I like it being homemade and real,” Ryan explained. “I don’t like the results without putting in the work.”