Former Judge wideout helps Towson rebuild

Former Fath­er Judge wide re­ceiv­er Tom Ry­an is get­ting set to be­gin his seni­or sea­son at Towson Uni­versity. One of Towson’s most pro­duct­ive re­ceiv­ers, the Mor­rell Park nat­ive has helped ush­er in a foot­ball turn­around at the sub­urb­an Mary­land school. (Pho­tos cred­it Towson Uni­versity Ath­let­ic De­part­ment).


Four years ago, seni­or-to-be Tom Ry­an was en­ter­ing his fi­nal year at Fath­er Judge High School armed with some pretty im­press­ive cre­den­tials. The multis­port star was a re­turn­ing All-Cath­ol­ic per­former in both foot­ball and bas­ket­ball, and col­lege scouts were tak­ing no­tice. 

The num­ber of re­cruit­ment let­ters was in­creas­ing as pre­season foot­ball camp ap­proached. Des­pite his prowess on the bas­ket­ball court, Ry­an felt that foot­ball was his surest tick­et to a full ath­let­ic schol­ar­ship.

Stand­ing a stout 6 feet 3 inches tall, Ry­an was prov­ing to be a dif­fi­cult match­up for any corner­back on the grid­iron. The sure-handed, speedy re­ceiv­er already had es­tab­lished him­self while still an un­der­class­man in the com­pet­it­ive Cath­ol­ic League. 

In fact, his jack-of-all-trades abil­ity forced op­pos­ing coaches to ac­count for him every snap. Ry­an could beat you in all three as­pects of the game: of­fens­ively as a re­ceiv­er, de­fens­ively as a safety and on spe­cial teams as a re­turn man. As Tom Coyle, Ry­an’s coach at Judge, re­cently poin­ted out, “Tom was as com­plete and tough a foot­ball play­er as I have seen on the high school level in my 26 years.” His fi­nal of­fens­ive out­put (38 catches for 720 yards and nine touch­downs) paled in com­par­is­on to the over­all im­pact that his brand of foot­ball had on the rest of the team.

With the help of Ry­an’s lead­er­ship and ex­cep­tion­al play, Judge fin­ished the 2008 sea­son with a 7-3 re­cord, in­clud­ing a loss in the AAAA Cham­pi­on­ship Game at the hands of La Salle des­pite Ry­an’s five catches for 72 yards and a touch­down. In his four years at Judge, the foot­ball pro­gram showed marked signs of im­prove­ment, and Ry­an’s phys­ic­al play em­bod­ied an at­ti­tude change that put the school’s revered foot­ball pro­gram back on the map.

Ry­an’s seni­or sea­son only en­hanced his ap­peal to the re­cruit­ers jock­ey­ing for his ser­vices. While he garnered in­terest from the likes of North Car­o­lina State and Mary­land at the Di­vi­sion I-A level, it was Di­vi­sion I-AA Towson Uni­versity in sub­urb­an Bal­timore that Ry­an fell in love with.

“I picked Towson be­cause I liked the cam­pus and the area and I knew the foot­ball pro­gram was on the rise,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view on the eve of his seni­or sea­son. “I wanted to be a part of it.” 

To put it mildly, Towson had long been an af­ter­thought amongst the mem­bers of its foot­ball con­fer­ence, the Co­lo­ni­al Ath­let­ic As­so­ci­ation (CAA). Per­en­ni­al foot­ball powers, in­clud­ing Vil­lan­ova and Delaware, had dom­in­ated the league while Towson, lan­guished in the cel­lar. 

When Ry­an entered his fresh­man sea­son, he stepped in­to a pro­gram in trans­ition. Head coach Gordy Combs, who had fe­ver­ishly re­cruited Ry­an at Judge, was ab­ruptly fired and re­placed with Con­necti­c­ut as­sist­ant Rob Am­brose, a former Towson play­er and re­ceiv­ers coach.  Ry­an found him­self in the un­en­vi­able po­s­i­tion of be­ing a re­cruit from the pre­vi­ous coach­ing re­gime, and after a brief eval­u­ation, the of­fens­ive-minded Am­brose de­cided to hon­or Ry­an’s schol­ar­ship. The de­cision paid im­me­di­ate di­vidends.

Ry­an ap­peared in 10 games as a fresh­man and made it on the field mostly as a spe­cial teams play­er. He star­ted four of the last five con­tests and fin­ished the sea­son as the team’s fifth-lead­ing re­ceiv­er des­pite lim­ited play­ing time. The jump in com­pet­i­tion was im­me­di­ately evid­ent.

“The dif­fer­ence in the speed of the game is huge!” he said. “Everything is hap­pen­ing at a totally dif­fer­ent level. It took me a while to com­pletely ad­just.” 

He cred­ited the level of play and caliber of tal­ent in high school as key ele­ments in mak­ing him a more re­si­li­ent play­er. “You de­vel­op a cer­tain tough­ness from play­ing in the Cath­ol­ic League,” he said.

Des­pite Ry­an’s re­spect­able de­but, his Ti­gers ended the sea­son still anchored to the CAA base­ment. Un­deterred by the stand­ings, Ry­an headed in­to his first full off-sea­son with Am­brose com­mit­ted to turn­ing around the pro­gram.

Ry­an’s sopho­more cam­paign saw both his re­cep­tions and total yards from scrim­mage in­creased as he be­came a re­li­able of­fens­ive weapon. Towson again fin­ished low in the stand­ings, but the tide was be­gin­ning to turn.

Am­brose’s third sea­son at the helm co­in­cided with Ry­an’s third year in the pro­gram, and Towson took the league by storm, go­ing 7-1 in CAA play to claim their first ever league title and a trip to the play­offs. Ry­an was the team’s lead­ing re­ceiv­er with 39 catches for 560 yards and 3 scores. Dubbed the ‘Turn­around Ti­gers,’ Towson was the most im­proved team in Di­vi­sion I foot­ball.  With an over­all 9-3 mark, Ry­an was a ma­jor piece to the re­build­ing puzzle.

As Ry­an, an eco­nom­ics ma­jor, pre­pares to enter his fi­nal sea­son, the Mor­rell Park nat­ive has lofty goals in mind.

“I want to re­peat as CAA cham­pi­ons and win the Na­tion­al Cham­pi­on­ship,” he said.

His coach con­curred.

“Our ex­pect­a­tions are high­er and we’ve got to keep work­ing the way we did to get to this level,” Am­brose said. “Tom is one of our most ex­per­i­enced re­ceiv­ers and we are ex­pect­ing him to con­tin­ue com­ing up with big plays. He is one of the lead­ers on this team.”

With the sea­son just a little more than a month away, Ry­an is con­tinu­ing his workouts on cam­pus with his team­mates. He oc­ca­sion­ally makes it home on the week­end to re­lax and catch up with his fam­ily, in­clud­ing his par­ents, Mark and Maria. Ry­an’s fath­er and broth­er, also named Mark, coach at the high school and col­legi­ate level. His fath­er helps out with the squad at Judge while the young­er Mark is an as­sist­ant at Susque­hanna Uni­versity after re­cently com­plet­ing his play­ing days at Ly­coming Col­lege. Ry­an’s sis­ter, Christina, coaches a North­east Phil­adelphia wo­men’s rugby team.

The 2012 CAA sea­son is dif­fi­cult to fore­cast.  It’s a com­pet­it­ive league look­ing to un­seat Towson, but the Ti­gers are hungry for more. Last sea­son they were able to reach the pin­nacle with­in their con­fer­ence and hope to stay on top. 

An in­ter­est­ing caveat in the non-con­fer­ence sched­ule will oc­cur in prime­time on Sept. 29, as Towson will travel to Louisi­ana State Uni­versity, a na­tion­al cham­pi­on­ship con­tender from the power­ful South­east­ern Con­fer­ence.

“I hope they’re still ranked No. 1 by the time we play them,” Ry­an said.  “How many people can say they played the num­ber one team [in all of col­lege foot­ball]?” 

Ry­an knows he will be tested by one of the most pro­lif­ic de­fens­ive back­fields in the coun­try as LSU corner­back Tyr­ann Math­ieu and safety Eric Re­id are both fu­ture NFL play­ers. After re­flect­ing on the op­por­tun­ity to play against the best, Ry­an com­men­ted, “You really get to find out what kind of play­er you are.”

Just as he did at Fath­er Judge, Ry­an hopes his fi­nal sea­son at Towson puts the Ti­gers back on the map to stay. ••


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