It is fair to say that Shaunessy Ryan, who is in his first year coaching the boys basketball team at International Prep at Grover Cleveland, has more trust in his assistant than any other head coach in Western New York.
He should. He's married to her.
Shaun Ryan's assistant, and I-Prep's JV coach, is Rebecca Ryan. The couple met as undergrads at Daemen College, where they played basketball, went on to coach basketball, and then got married right on the Wildcats' court. Now they are something of a basketball mom and dad to a program they've helped take to the state's mecca of high school hoops.
I-Prep will play this evening in the Class C semifinals of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association championships. The Presidents, winners of the Buffalo Public Schools' Yale Cup Division II and ranked No. 1 in The News small school poll all season, are two wins away from a state title.
"It really has been one of those magical seasons," said Shaun Ryan. "Everything just seemed to fall into place."
It has been a season that included quite a few changes. The school long known as Grover Cleveland transitioned to its new name of I-Prep, with new uniforms and new school colors (going from green to blue). When longtime, successful Grover coach Earl Schunk took a retirement incentive after last school year, a team with senior standouts like Chris Holland, Kenny Pringle and Kadeem Hillman would have a new coach.
"I can't give enough credit to the seniors who spent all that time with Earl, and then their senior year they get the bomb he's not coming back," Shaun said. "These kids really responded. A new coach, a little different philosophy in how we play, and these kids stuck with it."
Shaun slid over one seat on the bench after being Schunk's assistant and the JV coach. The assistant's seat would be filled by the modified coach -- Rebecca.
This wasn't the couple's master plan. The Ryans had met as juniors at Daemen in 1995. She was recruited from Phoenix in the Syracuse area and played for, and then coached under, Dave Skolen. Shaun, a Kenmore West grad, transferred from Erie Community College to Daemen and had the same playing-to-coaching career under Don Silveri.
"If you ask Dave or Don, they'll each tell you a different thing," said Rebecca. "It was the best thing for him academically to meet me, and it was the best thing for me athletically to meet him. Because I had him studying and he had me in the gym. We were just playing each other one-on-one and shooting any time we had free time. We became really good friends and the rest is history."
Their coaching bios on the I-Prep website appear to have been cut-and-pasted from the same cloth, with both having extensive assistant coaching experience (nine years each) at Daemen's successful NAIA programs. They were married (where else but the court?) in 2005 and both were hired at Grover four years ago -- Shaun first as an assistant football coach while Rebecca took the job coaching girls volleyball -- and modified boys basketball.
"I never thought we would [coach together] -- I think just because of the whole female aspect of it," said Rebecca. "I never thought that people would allow me to coach at the boys level, but with Kevin [Eberle, the I-Prep principal], he knew that I could do it," before adding with a laugh, "and no one else wanted to. So I took it.
"I enjoy coaching the boys. I did have to prove myself right away, shooting with them, playing on the court with them, running with them. I do things so that they kind of understood that I wasn't just a girl trying to get a paycheck or anything, that I actually knew the game. And now I'm like the basketball mom."
The same players who played for her on modified last season joined her when she moved up to JV this year. While she had proven herself to her players, the move up brought with it more double-takes.
"Sometimes you get funny looks in opposing gyms," said Shaun. "They'll go up to Rebecca and ask who the coach is and she'll say, 'Well, I am.' She's been breaking all that stuff down. It's tough for her to come in and coach boys, in the city, and she's done a fantastic job."
Rebecca earned respect the same way she did with her players, by showing people she knows how to coach.
"At first people are a little taken back by it," Rebecca said. "But then they see my bench coaching, they see the respect I'm getting from the players, that they're listening to me, that they're looking at me, the way that they play."
Says Holland: "She played basketball before so she knows what she's doing. She gives us tips on helping us work as a team, about better positions to be on the court. It's great to have a husband and wife as coach, they've done a great job of leading us to this spot. We're all united, we're all a family -- we've got a mom and a dad."
There's even more of a family aspect when the Ryans' 3-year-old daughter Tiernan joins the Presidents at practice.
When mom and dad are on the bench, the couple's chemistry is at work.
"She brings a lot of emotion to the bench and a lot of fire," said Shaun. "I can sometimes get lost in X's and O's, and watching the clock, and when I should take timeouts -- and she's clapping and getting the kids going and they've responded to her enthusiasm."
And then there's that trust thing.
"There's been several occasions where the game will be going on, and she'll tap me and she'll say, 'You gotta get that guy outta there.' 'You've gotta go to this,' " said Shaun. "So we do it, and most of the time it works.
"The great thing is that I have total trust. So if she says something, she's probably right, so I better change it."
Then he adds with a smile: "I kind of have to, right?"
During the school day, Shaun has some of the players in his social studies classroom. Rebecca is a special education teacher and her flexible schedule allows here to check in on all the players -- and it's not all about basketball.
"I tell them it's a whole package," said Rebecca. "I tell them, let's be realistic, you're not going to go play in the NBA. But let's use your basketball ability, let's use your athleticism, along with your grades academically, to get you somewhere else. That somewhere else might be a junior college [first], but use that to get you where you need to be and get you out of whatever situation you're in. Better your life, better yourself, get a degree, get a job."
Said Pringle: "That's what she puts in our heads: stay focused, do our work, pay attention in school and keep playing and it might get you somewhere. So we can make it out of here, and out of the ghettos, you know?
"She always says before the game, 'Do this for the people you love -- do this for the people you love.'"
Over the past decade or so, Jamestown coach Ben Drake has had opportunities to attend the final four in Glens Falls. But he never followed up on them.
"I've always said that I wasn't going unless I was on the team bus," said the 13th-year coach of the Red Raiders, who are making the school's first final four appearance.
Greeting Jamestown in Saturday's Class AA semifinal is a most challenging opponent -- the undefeated defending state champions in Albany's Christian Brothers Academy, who will have plenty of support from fans from host Section II (Albany area).
"We have our hands full -- they are a very talented team and they really don't have any significant weaknesses," Drake said. "At the same time, I don't think we need to play over our heads. We need to play good basketball, minimize our mistakes, take care of the ball and knock down open shots. We're going into it with nothing to lose and we're going to play our tails off."