When Rylee Jo Ward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee, there was never any doubt in her mind she would be back to her old self at some point.
The Burns High junior didn’t only return to her old ways, she returned more determined to make up for the time she wasn’t able to compete. She made up for that time, and did even more on her way to a standout campaign on the court and on the track.
Ward was first team all-conference selection in volleyball, first team all-state in basketball, and placed third in the 100-meter hurdles and fourth in pole vault at the Class 3A state track meet. Those accomplishments earned her Laramie County Female Prep Athlete of The Year honors from Cheyenne’s WyoSports staff.
“I thought I was going to get back mainly because of who my parents are,” Ward said. “They never would have let me just give up and not want to do it anymore, because they knew if I didn’t have sports in my life, I’d be so lost.”
But Ward’s award-winning junior campaign started out with some caution. Her injury occurred in mid-February of 2020, and she was back on the court in just five-and-a-half months, missing only the first weekend of volleyball.
The credit for the speedy recovery was spread around from Ward’s physical therapists at North Platte Physical Therapy in Torrington to her willingness to put in the extra effort every day and not miss a single session of rehab.
It was her mom, Shannon, who was said to be the biggest influence in her recovery period.
“I gained a whole new respect for anyone that has gone through that injury,” Rylee’s father and basketball coach Barry Ward said. “It’s a terrible thing, and to have a front row seat and watching all the rehab and all the stuff it takes to come back – it’s hard, but Rylee’s mom got us through it all.”
As the setter on the volleyball team, the fall sport was Rylee Jo’s first sport back after the missed time. Burns volleyball and hurdles coach Shelle Rostad didn’t deny there was some hesitation to allow Rylee Jo to do what she needed and wanted to do on the court.
Yet, it was more work trying to slow her down than trying to accept play that came with timidness.
“She couldn’t go side to side, but she could move forward to back, and putting the ‘Whoa’ on her was more of a problem than her coming back,” Rostad said. “That was one of the harder things, was not allowing her to do things she wanted, and it was hard trying to find that balance.”
Rylee Jo carried her all-conference volleyball season into basketball, where she paced the Lady Broncs in scoring, assists and steals, racking up 16.1 points, 3.3 assists and 4.1 steals per contest. She also finished the season tied for third in 3A in scoring and seventh in assists, while leading the state in steals.
It was somewhat of a bounce-back season for her after she missed the end of her sophomore basketball season, and an impressive feat to place as high as she did in track following a knee injury.
One thing she was able to continue to build on during her time away was her leadership. Even when she couldn’t lead by example, she never stopped leading with her voice.
“When she got hurt and missed the tail end of her sophomore year of basketball, it was hard, really hard,” Barry said. “And she did a really good job of trying to lead her team from the sidelines. She was their biggest cheerleader.”
A mental game
There was a lengthy list of physical activities Rylee Jo could and couldn’t partake in after she suffered her injury. Near the bottom of the list was a sport that challenges the mind arguably more than any other: golf.
So, the Wards became regulars at the Little America golf course in southwest Cheyenne.
The game wasn’t exactly new to her, though, Barry said.
“A couple or three years ago, I told my wife, ‘We’re going to teach Rylee how to play golf, and she said ‘Why?,’ and I said ‘For one, she’s not going to be any good at it … and it’s going to make her more mentally tough.’”
As great of an athlete as Rylee Jo is, there’s still that mental aspect that could dictate the individual performance and even the team’s performance and outcome of a game.
It’s something that athletes struggle with, and Rylee Jo was no different, Barry said. But golf helped her build the mental part of her game.
“The thing Rylee struggles with the most is self-talk, and how you talk to yourself is really, really important in sports, because everybody’s going to make a mistake,” he said. “And I really, really think it showed up this season. She matured quite a bit, and especially in volleyball. It was really apparent in volleyball.”
The mental strength built on the fairways and greens didn’t just help her perform at a high level. It was also a factor in how she managed to battle her injury. The mental side of coming back from a substantial injury could overpower the physical nature of it.
But throughout the pain, the workouts and the challenges, there was never any groaning from Rylee Jo. She just knew it was part of a process to get her to where she needed to be.
“I didn’t know what we were going to be expecting (going into rehab),” Shannon said. “But there was never a complaint, she never cried, and I think she just got frustrated once ... there was never complaining, there was never a ‘Why me?’, not one time did she ever utter that.”
Spending time on the links didn’t just help with Rylee Jo’s mental game, it helped her fulfill a competitive void that immediately went missing when she was injured.
Growing up with three older sisters and starting sports at such a young age, she was thrust into a competitive lifestyle. She even claims her mom and grandma take pride in doing simple chores around the house, and that her family helped instill the trait in her.
“(My drive) comes from my family. Everybody in my family is driven; my grandma, she’s very driven in everything she does, like when she does laundry, she’s even driven doing that,” Rylee Jo said. “For example, when my mom puts dishes away, she’s even doing that with effort.”
So when the opportunity arose to compete against everything that golf forces you to compete against – others, yourself, the course – she embraced it.
“It was a competitive outlet for Rylee when she was hurt,” Barry said. “She played a lot of golf when she was rehabbing.”
That will to compete is one of the things that makes her as great as she is. It especially stood out at the state track meet in May. Even though Ward claimed she wasn’t supposed to make it to state in the event, she wasn’t pleased with her performance after placing third.
Clocking in at 17.02 seconds, the third-place finish was frustrating. But even a runner-up finish wouldn’t have been good enough.
“I was a little frustrated, because in practice every day, I worked on that event specifically, and I shouldn’t have really been frustrated because nobody expected me to go to state this year,” Rylee Jo said. “But I was frustrated because I don’t like to lose. I’m really motivated to get back on the track now so I can win next year.”
She has another year to place first, and to take her basketball and volleyball teams on runs to the state tournament. She hopes to continue to lead the track team to new heights, where leadership might not be as noticeable.
But she knows how to keep pushing forward, and that’s a contagious trait.
“It’s fun to watch a kid mature and develop over a season, and a lot is being able to handle emotions,” Burns track coach Brooks Hoffman said. “When a pole vault doesn’t go well or a race doesn’t go well, she’s there telling teammates it will be all right ... she definitely grew leaps and bounds in that leadership role of ‘We’re here, we can move forward, and it will get better. It’s all right if we’re not there yet’.
“She just has a keep charging forward mentality.”