Taite Ryan settles on 35 for the number of headbands she owns. A teammate of the New Trier senior volleyball player had guessed 45, while walking past Ryan with several other teammates, after the end of a tryout session last week in a steamy gym at the school’s Winnetka campus.
The bigger number had made Ryan smile.
“All of the colors of the rainbow,” Ryan, wearing a pink headband on this day, says, referring to the hues of the bulk of her headwear collection and adding the pieces of fabric hang on hooks in her closet at home. “I also have some patterned headbands. Been wearing a headband ever since I started playing volleyball.
“I wear a white headband, only a white one, when we play matches. On days when we practice, on days when we’re going through tryouts, I like to change it up a little, mix it up. It would be weird, so weird, if I didn’t wear one on a volleyball court.”
A Ryan headband happens to decorate the part of her that contains her most valuable volleyball asset — knowledge of the sport. The 6-foot-1 (one inch taller than her height last year) outside hitter and Dartmouth College recruit has a knack for knowing exactly where to direct a kill attempt, has a knack for knowing exactly where to be to bump a dig, has a knack for knowing exactly where to be to disrupt an opponent’s kill attempt.
If the high IQ society Mensa International were to accept only smart prep volleyball players from Illinois, Ryan — a third-year varsity Trevian with superb court vision and instincts — would be picked as a charter member and then be asked to head the selection committee in ensuing years.
“We could put Taite anywhere on the court, in any position, and watch her succeed there,” New Trier girls volleyball coach Hannah Hsieh, about to begin her 23rd season at the school, says. “Skillful player, solid player, smart. As an attacker she’s more aggressive, which is good to see. [During tryouts] I’ve also noticed she’s more solid in everything. Indispensible … Taite will be that kind of player for us.”
Ryan played an instrumental role on NT’s Class 4A sectional championship squad (33-6) last fall, typically ranking either second or third among teammates in kills. The eight-year Wildcat Juniors club volleyball veteran pounded seven kills in NT’s defeat of Niles West in a sectional semifinal and then crowded her stats line with a 10-dig, three-kill, three-ace, two-block effort in a three-set defeat of Hersey in a sectional final.
Ryan, at the time, was more than a year removed from discovering the differences, most of them startling and exciting, between a JV match and a varsity match.
“More strategy involved, crazy energy in the gym, the number of fans watching us, cheering for us … so much going on,” Ryan says of the memorable atmosphere surrounding her varsity debut in 2016. “It’s what I still love about volleyball — the vibe and energy our team gets to experience after every big kill, after every big block. You can feel the mood in the entire gym change, instantly, after something good happens. It’s truly a team sport, because you can’t have a weak link on your team and expect to win.”
Ryan chose to give volleyball a try in the fifth grade at Sacred Heart School in Winnetka. Practically everybody was playing it there, she had observed. Maybe it was the thing to do. Taite signed up and battled. Stefanie Ryan later encouraged her daughter to attend a Wildcat Juniors club tryout session.
Taite resisted at first.
The daughter still appreciates the nudge from mom.
In June, at AAU Volleyball Nationals in Orlando, Florida, Wildcat Juniors’ 18 Black team placed fifth in the 18 Premier division. The coach deployed Taite Ryan in the front row. Ryan produced. As always.
“Taite’s consistency is what makes her valuable in volleyball,” Trevians senior setter and Boston College recruit Payton Hielscher says. “And she’s athletic, and she gets better and better each year. Her serve-receive is better. She’s hitting better, blocking better. You’ll never see her get flustered on the court. Our team’s chemistry on the court is good because Taite is there.
“She’s our rock,” Hielscher adds.
Who also dribbles the rock. Ryan is a lock to make the varsity girls basketball team for a third season this winter. Ryan played forward and center for a 4A sectional semifinalist in the 2017-18 season. She will have collected a total of six varsity letters on Graduation Day in 2019.
“One of the few multisport athletes left,” says Hsieh, whose spikers open their season at Libertyville High School on Aug. 21. “I love that she plays two sports. I love watching her play basketball. To play the sports she plays and to handle the academics at our competitive school as well as she does, that takes balance. Taite has always been good at balancing her commitments.”
About her unique first name: Stefanie and her husband, Doug, saw it in a newspaper article before the birth of their daughter and liked it. Taite Ryan organizes birthday parties at an Athletico Center this summer.
Does Taite Ryan know another Taite?
“No,” she says.
Count on her volleyball teammates to say yes to Ryan’s leadership style in 2018.
“I’m laid-back, don’t take a lot of things too seriously,” she says. “It takes the edge off my teammates. I find fun in everything. Volleyball … it’s supposed to be fun.”