Sometimes big plays that swing the course of a football game don’t come on the offensive side.
A long run or a pass that goes for a touchdown or to get an offense in the position to score can be huge, but just as huge can be a play on the other side of the ball – the turnover or the big tackle on a key down to stop a drive.
Sauk Valley Media’s player of the year made plenty of big plays on defense. Sterling senior jack-of-all-trades Isaiah Ryan seemed to be everywhere on the field, stopping drives and frustrating opposing offenses, and playing a major role in the Golden Warriors’ trip to the semifinals for the second year in a row.
“I think my senior season was a success,” he said. “I came in personally with a lot of goals, and I know we had a lot of team goals as well. A lot of those came true. Those are all devoted to hard work and great coaching and great teammates. That’s all you can ask for from a group of guys.”
The other team could throw a pass out into the flat and Ryan would get out there and make a tackle. They could hand it off between the tackles and he would plug a hole and make a stop for minimal or no gain. If the opposing quarterback was looking to throw it deep, Ryan could get into the backfield and either bring him down for a sack or flush him from the pocket.
“He’s just always been a really good football player,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “I think in the coaching profession, it’s tossed around a lot, kids that have ‘it’ – and you can’t always put your thumb on what ‘it’ is, but that kid’s got it.”
Ryan’s big plays always seemed to spark his team.
In the Week 3 win over Alleman, Ryan picked off a pass and returned it to the Pioneers’ 9-yard line, setting up a Warriors touchdown two plays later. He also intercepted a pass in the win over Ottawa, that too setting up a Sterling touchdown. Another interception in the first round of the playoffs against Chicago Phoenix set up yet another score.
With three interceptions on the year, the linebacker tied defensive back Alek Duran for the team lead.
But the quarterfinal win over Rockford Boylan is where he stood out. With both offenses struggling to get going most of the day, Ryan came up with one play after another to hold up Sterling’s end of the defensive battle.
He recovered a fumble on the first play of the second quarter, stopping a Boylan drive at the 42. On the next possession, he sacked Boylan quarterback John Starck on third down, forcing a punt. He had another sack on Boylan’s next drive, bringing down Jake Bergstrom. He flushed Bergstrom from the pocket on a third-down play in the third quarter, resulting in just a short gain when the Titans needed 10 yards, forcing a punt.
But he saved the best for last. Boylan’s last offensive play of the game, on a drive after Sterling scored to tie the game 7-7, the Titans reached the Warriors’ 41 and were facing a third-and-13. Boylan called a reverse, flipping the ball to Chase Dixon racing from the right slot. Ryan saw it develop, blasting through the line and bringing Dixon down for an 8-yard loss.
“That play, somebody needed to step up,” Ryan said. “They drove down the field on the kickoff, they were in our territory, so somebody needed to step up. Right when I saw the guy on my side go the opposite direction, everything else was flowing this side, I just ran through a lane, a couple guys missed their blocks, and everything worked out.”
If it seemed like Ryan was everywhere in that game, there is a reason for that. He was lining up in more than one place.
“I started at inside linebacker and then Negil [Bruce] went down, so they had to move me back to outside,” Ryan said.
Part of Ryan’s value to the Warriors was his versatility. Schlemmer and the coaching staff could plug him in to pretty much any spot on the field and expect him to come up big.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve played inside linebacker, outside linebacker, two-high safety, free safety. Freshman year, I started as a corner,” Ryan said. “The only position I haven’t played on defense is the defensive line. Coach [Mike] LeMay joked with me that he was going to move me to defensive line one day.”
Moving from one spot to another was the case on offense too, where Ryan was a wide receiver his sophomore and junior years and came into this season as a slot receiver. But when an injury to running back Marquez Williams thinned the offensive backfield for the Warriors, Ryan was called upon to carry the ball. He rushed the ball 15 times for 162 yards and five touchdowns in limited action on offense.
“That’s just adapting to a role,” Ryan said. “If the coaches need me to do something, I’ll get it done without complaining.”
Some of the switches happened during the week leading up to a game. Sometimes it would be mid-game. It never mattered to Ryan, who was willing to go wherever the Warriors needed him to go, and was willing to adjust on the fly.
“Coaches talk about how they need me to be a playmaker for our team,” Ryan said. “A lot of times, I just see and just start running and make a tackle. It’s all about the ball. The offense can’t move without the ball. If I’m tracking that and keep my eyes peeled for a guy running a different direction, it’s simple.”
Ryan saw his role as being a leader on the defense – and being a playmaker.
“It all started before the season in the weight room,” Ryan said. “I said if I want to make those plays, you’ve got to work hard in the weight room. You’ve got to work hard during track season, during basketball, maybe throw an extra sprint in there over the weekend.”
Ryan transformed himself in the weight room.
A couple days after a loss to Phillips in the 2017 semifinal, Ryan was back in the weight room for his offseason lifting. He kept lifting throughout basketball season, maxing out over 200 pounds in the bench press, 225 in the clean and jerk, and 300 in the squat.
He kept lifting during track season, and then really buckled down over the summer. By the time the Warriors were ready to open this season, Ryan was maxing out at 240 pounds in the bench and 400 in the squat.
“It definitely correlated to the field,” he said. “I got a lot faster, a lot stronger.”
He came into high school at 120 pounds. He weighed 150 pounds as a sophomore. As a junior, he weighed 170 pounds and played wide receiver and defensive back. He bulked up to 185 this year and moved closer to the line of scrimmage on defense, playing linebacker.
“He really separated himself this past winter and spring in the weight room,” Schlemmer said. “That’s where he went from being a good player to a great player – and to an all-state player. He made himself.
“If you had seen him as a sophomore, 150 pounds soaking wet, he’s a kid that for a long time in our program, we wanted a kid to transform who he is upstairs, and he did it. He was always a really good football player, he’s always able to run a little bit, good tackler, but I think when we sat down and talked to him about his future moving forward, it was you have to get bigger, you have to get stronger.”
Ryan completely bought into that philosophy in the weight room.
“He’s been so dedicated,” said his father, Joe Ryan. “The great part of his dedication is everyone around the Sterling program that sees his dedication They see what kind of person he’s turned himself into. He doesn’t miss opportunities to make himself better.”
He would also try to improve himself in the film room, studying up on the next team the Warriors were to face.
“If you have a couple of extra minutes, you watch some film,” Isaiah Ryan said. “We watch film three or four times a week leading up to the game. If we break that down, everything becomes easier on Friday nights or Saturday.”
Isaiah Ryan’s connection to the Sterling football team began in 2007, when his dad took a teaching job in the district and began coaching in the program. Isaiah took on a job as the waterboy and ballboy.
“He would never miss anything,” Joe Ryan said. “Loved coming to practice when he could, loved being around the team. He still talks about some of those kids.”
His dad wouldn’t let Isaiah take the field himself until sixth grade.
“It took me a while to fall in love with the game,” Isaiah admitted. “Coming into high school, basketball was my favorite game. But then just the bond that teammates share, the way the community rallies around us, the hype that the football team has. I came into high school thinking that I’d win a state championship, and I’d do it for my community.”
Once he got onto the field in middle school, there were struggles for the undersized Ryan.
“A growth spurt helped a bit,” he said. “But I was still a playmaker. It took until sophomore year to really fall in love with the game. Junior year playing against Sycamore at their place was such a great atmosphere, and something I’ll never forget.”
There were also the games in the backyard, as Isaiah was busy competing against younger brothers Carter and Kael.
“Carter and I have ganged up on Kael a little bit, so Kael’s going to be really tough coming into high school,” Isaiah said. “Kael’s going to be battle-tested, and to be completely honest, he might be the best out of all of us. He’s pretty strong already. I’m just excited for them.”
With Carter Ryan on the sophomore team this year, the two brothers came up against each other a few times in practice this fall, and Isaiah saw firsthand the work Carter was willing to put in with weight training in an effort to get himself ready for the varsity team someday.
“I think it’s a little bit of competition,” Isaiah said. “He wants to one-up me in everything. I hope he does, truthfully. It would just be fun watching him beat me.”
He hopes he has set a good example for his younger brothers, showing them what they can accomplish through putting in the work in the weight room and film room and in practice.
Isaiah Ryan is convinced big things are ahead for Warriors football. Moments after the clock ran out on the semifinal loss to Montini, Ryan had a bold prediction for the future of a Sterling football program he has seen go from not making it past the quarterfinal to back-to-back semifinal trips.
“That’s the standard now,” Ryan said. “We set the bar and we set the tone of this program and where we want to be every year. Going forward, they’ve just got to make that jump again, and a state championship could be coming soon to this community.”
Ryan did end up on the field at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but not in the way he wanted. Instead of playing in the Class 5A title game, he was being honored as an all-state selection.
“That game was really fun to watch, it was a great game, but it would have been cool to play in a state championship game,” he said. “It doesn’t always happen like that. It was still fun going down there.”
In the end, Sterling came up one game short of a trip to Champaign. Once the clock had run out on the 42-20 Montini win, Schlemmer had talked to his players, and Schlemmer and some of the players had addressed the assembled media, the team headed for its locker room for the final time.
But before Schlemmer made it off the field, Ryan turned around and came back. Before taking off his Warriors uniform for the final time, Ryan met with his coach in the middle of the field to give him one last message.
“Everything good has to come to an end,” Ryan said. “Coach Schlemmer turned this program around, there’s no doubt he puts in so much work for us. I think one week he logged about 60 hours of film. He has a kid and a wife and a job, and somehow finds enough time to do all that and then figure out schematically what we’re going to do against each different team. … I came out onto the field one more time to give him a big hug, just to thank him for everything he’s done to show me love for the game, love for something other than family and friends.”
Ryan hopes to be taking that love on to college. He has a couple of Division II offers and some interest from NAIA schools, but hasn’t made up his mind yet.
Isaiah Ryan file
Parents: Joe and Melissa
Brothers: Carter, 15; Kael, 13
Other sports: Basketball, track
College plans: Undecided