When Rylee Vanaman attended her first softball practice at Claremore High, she was met with an unexpected culture shock.
Vanaman, an unassuming freshman at the time, had played with girls her age for a majority of her career.
Regardless of whether it was in little league, competitive ball or at Justus-Tiawah School, peers surrounded her at every juncture.
That all changed when she stepped on the Lady Zebras’ diamond as a high school athlete in 2016.
It didn’t take her long to realize she was one of only three freshman on the team. Those numbers have since dwindled.
One left the program. The other hung up her cleats in favor of becoming the team manager.
Vanaman is the sole survivor of the Class of 2020. The lone senior, if you will.
“I didn’t start with a lot of people in my class,” Vanaman said. It’s been different to be the only one and kind of go through everything by myself with the decisions.”
Despite those obstacles, Vanaman made the most of her opportunities.
Intensity levels rose from what she experienced in junior high, but she was expecting it. She embraced the challenge.
“It was very different, but I got acquainted pretty quickly,” Vanaman recalled. “It was pretty easy to get comfortable my freshman year. My teammates made it easy, and it’s been pretty good since then. It has been easy to adjust.”
She is now entering her fourth year as a starting outfielder for Claremore.
When looking at her family history, though, it isn’t much of a surprise.
Vanaman’s father grew up playing baseball, as did her brother, and though there isn’t women’s baseball, softball bears a striking resemblance to America’s favorite pastime.
Vanaman grew to love the sport, and it has treated her well throughout her career.
“It’s a family sport for me,” Vanaman said. “It was kind of just in me, I guess. I really started to love it, and it’s been smooth sailing since then.”
Finding her place and role on the team as an underclassman was one test overcome, and as her senior season begins, Vanaman finds herself in unfamiliar territory.
She is the undisputed leader of Claremore softball.
Although she has been a familiar face for the Lady Zebras on the diamond over the past few years, Vanaman never had to step up and fully take on leadership duties.
That responsibility, which most recently belonged to last year’s seven seniors, now lies squarely on Vanaman’s shoulders.
No pressure, right?
Well, for Vanaman, that is indeed the case thanks to her teammates.
“I have a lot of good juniors under me, and I have a lot of good underclassmen,” Vanaman said. “We definitely have better chemistry this year, so I don’t feel a ton of pressure to get us all molding together. It’s not too much pressure, but there is a little bit to be a leader and step up.
“I just try to be a good example. I try to talk when I can and help the underclassmen when they need it.”
Vanaman’s true leadership capability shines through in her mission statement for this season.
It isn’t about improving her batting and fielding numbers or even being selected to All-State.
No, her main objective is far more valuable than temporary numbers and awards.
“My goal for myself this year is to be a better leader toward (my teammates) and step up and make them feel welcomed,” Vanaman said. “I want to make them feel like they are a part of the team so we can mesh better together and just be a better team.”
Vanaman is also realistic about the team’s overall expectations.
A state tournament appearance would add a nice gloss to her farewell season, but according to the senior, the program simply aspires to improve upon last year’s 16-17 record.
“I think we’ve had a rough past few years,” Vanaman said. “I think this will be a good year.”