Naomi Ryan is the 16-year-old star at the center of America's lineup

August 13th, 2023

THUNDER BAY, Ontario -- There was a lot on the line when the United States took on Canada in the WBSC Women's World Cup group stage on Thursday night. For one, success in this tournament is paramount as the top two teams and a wild card advance to the finals next year. For another, America wanted revenge as Canada had defeated the USA for the bronze medal at the 2018 tournament -- the last one held because of the pandemic.

It's why the team's lineup that night was a little surprising: Batting third and playing left field was 16-year-old Naomi Ryan.

That's right: In the most important game at this week's tournament, USA manager Veronica Alvarez turned to the team's youngest player.

"She's amazing," Alvarez said after the win. "I love to see the look in her eyes when she's up there. She's completely focused on the task at hand, and I can't wait to see her hit a ball in the gap and get a triple because it's really exciting to see her run, as well."

Design by Angie Sullivan. Photos courtesy James Motter / USA Baseball

It was the right choice: Ryan went 1-for-3 with 3 RBIs and two walks in USA's remarkable 23-0 statement victory.

"I think [Alvarez] putting faith in me allowed me to have faith in myself and believe in the work I've put in and the work the team has put in," Ryan said after USA's next game, a 29-0 win against Hong Kong. Ryan was back in the three-hole, knocking out one hit, drawing four walks and striking out the side in her debut on the mound.

Echoing the team's rallying cry of "Rule the entire f-ing world," Ryan showed how well she fits into the team's ethos:

"We are here to dominate, show that we deserve to dominate and that we're the best team here."

Naomi Ryan takes a cut against Canada. Photo courtesy James Motter / USA Baseball

USA Baseball has always been aggressive in giving opportunities to talented young players. Current starting third baseman and leadoff hitter Ashton Lansdell made her debut at 17. Olivia Pichardo, now the first woman to play D1 baseball, was called up at 16. Ryan made her presence known before she could even get behind the wheel of a car with a learner's permit.

The young switch-hitter first met Alvarez and former USWNT star and current third-base coach Malaika Underwood at a clinic when she was just 10 years old. Four years later, she was making an impression among other adults at camp.

"We had a development event in Florida in 2021 and she came out. She was 14 years old, and we had her come and join -- it was a girls camp," Alvarez said. "And then we had her to come join the women's camp. She blended right in and you wouldn't have been able to tell she was 14. Maybe just based off her quietness or level of shyness, but as far as her ability, it was just really exciting to see and to look forward to the future and see what she can become."

Ryan grew up in Richmond, Va., learning the game from her father and brother. Like many of her teammates, baseball was in her blood and she had no interest in anything else.

"I only played softball one time," Ryan said. "It wasn't for me."

As the youngest player on the team, Ryan has plenty of heroes to look up to that can help guide her. Along with veteran players like closer Meggie Meidlinger, who has appeared at every Women's Baseball World Cup since 2006, and first baseman/catcher Anna Kimbrell, who has played for the team since 2012, Ryan says that she admires players like Kelsie Whitmore and hopes to follow Pichardo by playing college baseball in the future.

She's appreciative of the guidance they've given out at her first international tournament.

"Just to slow the game down, don't let it speed up on you," Ryan said of their advice. "Allow yourself to soak in all the fans and the moment but also be present."

"It's challenging young players that are up for the challenge and finding ways to put them in opportunities to be successful, and make them realize that they belong, that they see what I see," Alvarez said about hefting such responsibility upon a player as young as Ryan. "I wouldn't just put them out there to fail. I put them in those situations because I know they can be successful in them."

Alvarez has to balance two things at once, especially when the team has so few competitive games together. USA Baseball must win now, but still prepare for the future, when the USA will be likely to face teams like Chinese Taipei, ranked No. 2 in the world, and Japan, the world's No. 1 team and the winner of the last six World Cups, at next year's finals.

"Our [friendly series] last year here in Canada was really important to put those players in those situations where they can be successful," Alvarez said. "Feel the pressure, understand it, so that at these events next year, it's not new to them and they're able to wear this jersey and understand all that pressure and all the responsibility that comes with that."

Naomi Ryan takes the mound for her USA pitching debut. Photo courtesy James Motter / USA Baseball.

While she has broken into the heart of the starting lineup at such a young age, Ryan still maintains her humility. Even after helping Team USA book a trip to next year's World Cup finals, getting to celebrate with Kimbrell's game-winning lollipops, she still won't admit that she's pretty talented at this game.

"My dad always tells me that I'm pretty good at it," Ryan said with a laugh. "I mean, I have trouble believing it myself. But as long as I keep working out, I believe that I can be the best version of myself."