For the love of the game
Adversity. Coaches use the term loosely, but few athletes have truly experienced it like Ryker Curry.
The thought that he might not ever return to the mound or batter’s box after multiple heart procedures was always in the back of Ryker’s mind, but he pushed through.
“It’s been tough,” Ryker said. “I try not to think about it, but how it has got me here.”
This summer, Ryker is arguably the reason the A Iola Indians sit in a prime position to make a run at state. Not only is he sending batters back to the dugout, as he leads the team in strikeouts with 44, but also leads the team in batting average (.382).
The right-handed thrower/lefty slugger has the Indians in a prime position; they currently are the two seed heading into this weekend’s zone tournament. Two wins, and state awaits. Some would call this scenario pressure, but nothing compares to nearly losing your lifelong love — baseball.
When Ryker was 12, he and his father, Heath Curry, were wrapping up an afternoon session in the batting cages. Ryker said he wasn’t feeling well and went inside to catch a breather.
“I walk into the house and see him on the stairway lying down,” Heath Curry recalled. “I thought he was dead. I rolled him over and he was like lifeless.”
In March 2016, Ryker had open heart surgery at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. All went well, and in due time Ryker was given the OK to continue playing baseball. By that May, Ryker returned to his travel ball routine and stayed active, competing in other sports, including basketball.
Ryker still dealt with irregular heart beats, but they were never caught by medical professionals. Ryker was given a heart monitor, which he wore during ball games. The wires ran up and down his chest with electrodes, making him appear to be the second coming of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character the Terminator.
In a tournament in Manhattan during 2017, Ryker’s heart rate skyrocketed after a hit. He returned to the dugout but was called upon to finish off the game on the mound. As the next game was about to start with Ryker in center field, his heart rate jumped up to 275, leading him to have another heart procedure, an ablation, followed a few weeks later with a heart catherization, putting his baseball future in doubt.
“It felt awful. It was bad.” Ryker said. “I was really upset.”
After the procedure, Ryker never really truly recovered and was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a condition that affects the body’s circulation. The condition made it difficult for Ryker to participate in any physical activity. He began 8th grade with a cane. But Ryker didn’t let the diagnosis deter him and began rehabilitation with earnest.
“They had me on the treadmill and what not, because I was dizzy, and I used that for support to get back in shape,” Ryker said.
Even so, POTS presented a whole new challenge for Ryker, a condition he still deals with to this day.
“POTS tells your body you can’t do certain activities, and you just have to fight through it,” Heath said. “When Ryker stands up, all the blood goes to his legs, and he doesn’t have much up top, making him feel light-headed. He is supposed to drink 100 ounces of water a day. He can’t get enough water or salt.”
The setbacks didn’t stop with just his heart. Near the end of last summer’s season, Ryker suffered broken fragments in his throwing right arm along with some cartilage that had torn away from the bone. Elbow surgery was required. A hole was drilled to help the cartilage heal correctly. The procedure kept Ryker from playing ball until late October.
After four procedures — three heart and one arm — Ryker still leads with his play on the diamond. This weekend presents an opportunity for him to help lead the Indians to the state tournament in American Legion junior action. A young man of few words, Ryker lets his play speak for himself.
“I just keep playing, and I want to be good. I enjoy it,” Ryker said. “Outside of practice, I hit in the cage a lot, take ground balls, and play catch.”
Indians head coach Troy Smith has emphasized all season long that consistency with runners in scoring position needs to be more present. Clutch hits will be key if Iola hopes to make it to the state tournament. But getting on base isn’t easy, and Ryker realizes that maybe a change up at the plate needs to happen.
“Hitting is more difficult because you have someone in front of you trying to get you out,” Ryker said. “If I see a pitch I want to hit, it doesn’t matter, I just try to hit the ball early in the count and hit line drives. Maybe I need to just see a couple of pitches first.”
The Indians strong suit this season has been their pitching staff. Other than Curry, Iola will rely on the arms of Bradyn Cole, Nathan Louk and Eli Smith. Although the Indians staff has experienced success so far, they still need to have an identical approach heading into the weekend, along with a few other areas of improvement.
“I want to get ahead in the count, at least throw that first strike, and get them down in the count so they are at least guessing on what they have to hit,” Ryker said. “We have to hit the ball a little bit better, play better defense. I mean our pitching has been good, but we have to hit the ball.”
The Indians will also see a shakeup in the dugout for this weekend. Smith will be away for the zone tournament, handing the shot-calling duties over to Heath. The two have been in constant communication on the game plan for the weekend, but the only team that can beat Iola, is Iola.
“We get up for the big games and everyone is into the game, but sometimes when we play teams we drilled in the JV high school season, we can have problems,” Heath said. “I don’t know if we’ve let up or just don’t take them as serious and think we are just going to walk out there and beat them. If we don’t show up to play and think it’s just whoever, we could be out. But if we show up to play, we have a good chance to make it to state.”
The zone tournament will consist of six teams: Iola, Emporia, Topeka Washburn Rural, Garnett, Chanute and Ottawa. Iola’s first game will be Saturday afternoon at 5 p.m. in Emporia. All the Indians need are two wins, and they are through to the state tournament.
If the Indians are able to get the job done, the winning formula will most likely include Ryker’s ability on the mound and with the bat. If all the Indians play with Ryker’s passion for the game, they shouldn’t have any issues seeing themselves in Topeka for the state tournament.