Libby Ryan of Mount Vernon is The Gazette's 2017 Female Athlete of the Year

July 17, 2017 | 2:44 pm
Chapter 1:

A Mount Vernon cornerstone

MOUNT VERNON — Don’t leave behind what might come back to bite you.

A scouting report, for instance.

“I’m not going to name names, but before a match, we found in the bleachers a scouting report from our opponent,” said Maggie Willems, volleyball and girls’ track coach at Mount Vernon High School.

“It said that Libby Ryan was a weak link, and to serve the ball to her.”

Bad idea, to serve the ball to her. Bad idea, to get her fired up.

“I showed that to her, and she had one of her best matches of the year,” Willems said.

That was when Ryan was a freshman, still an unknown. That was before she became a 17-time letterwinner, a regular in state-level competition.

Today, The Gazette honors Ryan as its 2017 area high school Female Athlete of the Year.

“It’s all kind of a shock to me,” she said. “I’ve had some amazing teammates, all of them. Without them, this award doesn’t happen, and we’re not sitting here talking to each other.

“I’m just a piece in the puzzle.”

That’s humility speaking. It’s also false. Libby Ryan is a cornerstone. A pillar.

“She believes the team is stronger than the individual,” softball coach Robin Brand said. “She makes any team better just by being part of it.”

Male Athlete of the Year: Tristan Wirfs: Mount Vernon

Chapter 2:

A true athlete

Ryan and Male AOY winner Tristan Wirfs give Mount Vernon a sweep of the 2017 Gazette awards. It is the first time in the 35-year history of the award that both recipients hail from the same school in the same year.


“Tristan and I are lucky to have grown up here,” Ryan said. “The support we get from our community is amazing, whether it’s athletics, fine arts, whatever. Walking around town, people ask you how the games went the previous night.”

At 5-foot-6 and about 135 pounds, Ryan is dwarfed now by the 6-5, 315-pound Wirfs. But ask about the old days as little kids in the Mount Vernon Wrestling Club — coached by Libby’s father, Dave — and Ryan lights up.

“I was sitting out, and Dad said, ‘Libby, come over here. Tristan needs a partner,’” she said.

“I was a little angry that I had to work out with him because he was so much bigger. I don’t know if I got him to his back or not, but I beat him. I took him down.”

Ryan’s wrestling days didn’t last long, despite her natural instincts for it.

“She just had a knack for it,” Dave said. “She was so competitive and so strong.”

In a household of nine kids — Libby was the fifth born to Dave and Heidi Ryan — competitiveness and strength are not optional.

“There’s never a dull moment,” Ryan said. “I think my parents have been to more than 100 ball games just this last year. There’s a competitive nature in our house.”

Even on holidays.

Thanksgiving morning means the Ryan Turkey Trot, a one-mile race at the Mount Vernon track.

“Dad is the timer,” Libby said. “It’s really, really competitive, especially among the boys.”

After the runners have caught their breath, a family football game breaks out. It starts as two-hand touch, Libby said, “But it usually turns into tackle.”

All of the Ryan kids are sports-centric. They’re not forced into it, but ...

“We’ve had an unwritten rule,” Dave said. “If the kids aren’t out for a sport during a season, they need to be involved in another school activity, or they need to have a job.

Libby had no interest in employment. So it’s been volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, track and field in the spring, softball in the summer. Season after season, year after year.

When softball season wraps up, she’ll be a five-year letterwinner in that sport to go with four in each of the others.

Video: Meet Athlete of the Year Libby Ryan


Participation is one thing. High-level achievement is another. Of those 17 varsity seasons, 12 have ended at state. And that number will rise to 13 if the Mustangs win their Class 3A softball regional final Monday against East Marshall.

“Among my favorite memories are all the celebrations after regional finals, knowing that you’re going to state,” Ryan said.

She has won a pair of relay titles at the state track meet. But a team championship remains elusive.

“The hardest part was losing in the semifinals three times at state volleyball,” she said. “The Union match last season was really, really tough. All of the games were really close.”

Close, as in 29-27 in the third set, 32-30 in the fourth. That still stings.

Chapter 3:

A role model

Libby’s grandmother (Dave’s mother) is Shirley Ryan, the matriarch of Mount Vernon volleyball. Shirley coached the Mustangs for 38 seasons, winning 829 matches and three state championships before stepping down in 2010.

“When Grandma was coaching, I’d run out on the court afterward and high-five the players,” Libby said. “I can still hear her at softball games. Her voice cuts through, even when she’s (beyond the outfield fence), I can hear her.


“I remember I told her when I was younger that soccer was my favorite sport. She said she would support me in whatever I do.”

Softball replaced soccer as Ryan’s sport of choice, though more than one Division-I volleyball program was interested in her as a libero.

Dennis Roloff, who recently retired as the Mustangs’ girls basketball coach, took it one step further.

“I think she could have picked any sport that she participated in, and she could help just about any college team,” Roloff said.

But Ryan picked softball, and like her older sister Sarah, she will play at Drake University.

“I knew that (Drake Coach Rich) Calvert’s philosophy is ‘family, school, softball.’ That’s important to me,” she said.

No matter the sport, Ryan is generally a step ahead of the competition.

In softball, for instance, Ryan has stolen 216 bases in her career, in 221 attempts. She is quick, but not blindingly fast.

“I know some people say I leave (first base) early,” she said. “The first steps are really important. We’ve worked a lot on sliding. If the ball beats you to the base, you can still slide around it.”

Her father said, “A thing that separates her from her peers is her attention. When she steps between the lines, she’s in a zone. Outside the lines, she’s an every-day kid.”

At school, Ryan is said to be very social, “a little ornery,” Dave said. “But at home, she’s very quiet.”

Willems called her a “fierce” soul.


“Libby is a fierce competitor, but she’s also fiercely loyal, fiercely loving and fiercely determined,” she said.

Ryan got to this point despite (or perhaps because of) the fact she has bypassed offseason club sports, instead going season to season with her classmates.

“In this era of specialization, she broke the mold and proved you can be an outstanding four-sport athlete,” Mount Vernon Athletics Director Matt Thede said.

Before Willems was a head coach, she was Shirley Ryan’s assistant. It was then and there that she got her first glimpse of Libby’s sparkle.

“When she was 4 or 5, she would come to a match or stop by practice, and you could just see that light in her eye,” Willems said.

Those players, many of which were friends of her older siblings, were Libby’s first role models. Her first heroes.

Now, she’s the target of Mount Vernon’s young eyes.

“Look at our younger kids ... what an opportunity they have to be around her,” Brand said. “When they make a mistake, she just puts her arm around them and tells them they’ll get the next one.”

Just another piece of the puzzle? Hardly.

A weak link? Never.

Final voting

Voting is done on a 5-4-3-2-1 bases. First place votes in parentheses.

1 Libby Ryan Mount Vernon 64 (12)
2 Lisa Tucker Cascade 33
3 Sarah Lehman Iowa City Regina 26
4 Valerie Welch Iowa City West 21
5 Kennedy Dighton Cedar Rapids Jefferson 18


Others receiving votes (alphabetic order): Josie Durr (Solon), Paige Franck (Cedar Rapids Kennedy), Lexi Noonan (Cedar Rapids Xavier), Isabella Sade (Marion), Elena Sieverding (Lone Tree), Amara Taylor (Cedar Rapids Washington)

*NOTE: Durr received one first-place vote.

Others nominated (alphabetic order): Mary Arch (Iowa City High), Emma Cooper (Iowa City West), Savannah Domeyer (Clayton Ridge), Olivia Dlouhy (Springville), Hannah Frazee (Cedar Rapids Prairie), Regan Steigleder (Iowa City West), Morgan Swanger (Marion)

Meet The Gazette's 2017 Female Athlete of the Year finalists