From New York to New Zealand: Commodore transfers’ different paths to Vanderbilt

Matt Ryan (left) and Yanni Wetzell (right) will look to make an impact as transfers this season. Photos via Vanderbilt Athletics

Matt Ryan (left) and Yanni Wetzell (right) will look to make an impact as transfers this season. Photos via Vanderbilt Athletics

Max Schneider, Associate Sports Editor

The tale of these two transfers travels a distance of 8,844 miles.

It runs through a collegiate athletic powerhouse and a small private university in the middle of Texas.  It features college football offers, world tennis rankings, a New York Mr. Basketball, and countless hours of preparation.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Vanderbilt forward Matt Ryan.  “A lot of work has gone into the past year and it’s time to play on the big stage.”

The journey to get on the court at Vanderbilt has indeed been long, and for the two Commodore transfers, their respective paths couldn’t have been more different.

Matty Ice: The Sharpshooter

Matt Ryan remembers March Madness fondly.

His Notre Dame team was just one win away from the Final Four in his freshman season.  The next year, Ryan averaged seven points in the team’s two tournament games, but a swift exit in the Round of 32 at the hands of West Virginia ended his season.  The big stage wasn’t too big for Ryan, but that’s no surprise for a kid growing up around the New York basketball scene.

Ryan first picked up a basketball when he was seven years old, and shooting just seemed to come naturally to him.

“Never stop shooting,” said his Youth AAU coach, and Ryan says it’s the best advice he’s heard to this day.

The New Yorker from Cortlandt Manor, a suburb north of New York City, never did stop shooting.  He shot his way onto the varsity team at Iona Prep, all the way the team’s first championship in school history.  But for Ryan, that championship almost didn’t happen.

“Halfway through high school I had to pick between basketball and football,” said Ryan.  “I was a pretty good quarterback.  I probably could have played division one.”

Ryan took after his namesake, quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, and shined under center for Iona Prep.  His acumen on both the field the hardwood made it a tough decision, having to choose one sport to pursue collegiately.  Ryan’s dilemma was solved for him when the basketball offers started pouring in following his sophomore AAU season.  Football wasn’t the only thing that stood in the way of his basketball success, though.

Ryan was sidelined for most of his junior season, placing his basketball career in a temporary stranglehold.  He had been diagnosed with double hip impingement, a condition characterized by abnormal and wearing contact between the ball and socket of the hip.  With it came two torn labrums, shattering the soft tissue that surrounds the hip socket.

The injury marked the end of Ryan’s junior season, and put his senior year in jeopardy as well.  Through intense therapy sessions and months of rehab, however, he was able to make a full recovery just in time for his final year at Iona Prep.  And his senior year was magical.  Ryan averaged 20 points, eight rebounds, and five assists, leading the Gaels to the Archdiocesan Championship.  He accepted a basketball scholarship from Notre Dame, but the good news kept coming.

It became only fitting that he was in the doctor’s office getting X-ray’s on his hip when he found out.  Scrolling through Twitter, Ryan discovered the honor for which he’d been selected: New York Mr. Basketball.

“It was definitely one of the most exciting moments of my life,” said Ryan, now a junior forward for Vanderbilt. “I was with my mother and we were both really excited. It was a great award to get and I’m really excited I got it.”

Ryan joined the exclusive club that features names like Stephon Marbury, Elton Brand, Lance Stephenson, and Jamal Mashburn.

After two years at Notre Dame, Ryan decided to transfer, taking his talents to Vanderbilt, a team that recruited him out of high school.  That didn’t play a role in his recruitment this time around, though.

“The guy who recruited me here was Coach Yanni Hufnagel, so he wasn’t here anymore,” said Ryan.  “Coach Stallings wasn’t here anymore, so it was totally different the second time around, but Coach [Bryce] Drew has been doing a really great job recruiting.”

With Drew at the helm and with the loss of a couple sharpshooting seniors, Ryan looks poised to step in and be a threat from deep immediately.

“We think he’s one of the best shooters in the country,” Drew said of his new small forward.  “So hopefully he can really stretch the defense a lot.”

Yanni Buckets: Kiwi on the Court

Mr. Basketball playing for a Catholic prep school in New York en route to one of the premier athletic powerhouses in college sports?  That might work for Ryan, but Yanni Wetzell’s introduction to Vanderbilt basketball bared no resemblance.

It started across the globe in Auckland, New Zealand, the country’s largest urban area.  Wetzell was basically born with a tennis racket in his hand.  In fact, his mother, Jenny, kept one in his crib with him.  His father, Clem, played rugby collegiately, and Wetzell knew from a young age that he wanted to play collegiate sports as well.

Only he wanted to do it in America.

“From a young age I always wanted to come to college here, but initially it was for tennis,” said Wetzell.  “I was a tennis player all through high school.”

Wetzell competed in tennis tournaments throughout his childhood, climbing up the world tennis ranks in the process.  A collegiate tennis scholarship in the United States seemed in the cards.  By the time he was in high school, Wetzell was one of the top 16 players in New Zealand, and one of the top 1500 junior tennis players in the world out of a group of 75 million.

“Honestly, I was all tennis. I had quit all my other sports from a young age,” said Wetzell.

As much as he loved tennis, Wetzell’s height kept pushing him in another direction.  He was 6’7” while he was enrolled in Westlake Boys High School, and quickly sprouted to 6’10” by the time he graduated.  His friends kept urging him to play basketball, and at a certain point he couldn’t resist.

“I was playing [basketball] socially my last couple years of high school and just started loving the sport, loving the team aspect of things, fell out of love with tennis, and that’s when I kind of knew I wanted to follow the basketball pathway,” he said.

The basketball pathway was a narrow one for Wetzell.  Having spent his whole life in pursuit of a collegiate tennis career in the United States, he now had just one year to prove he deserved an opportunity in hoops.  That opportunity came from St. Mary’s University in Texas, a small Catholic university that attracted international talent to its Division II athletics.

“I didn’t have a lot of looks,” said Wetzell.  “St. Mary’s had some good coaches, it was in San Antonio, Texas, so a nice well-known city.  I got along well with the coaches and the team when I came on a visit and it just felt right.”

Transitioning from the beaches of New Zealand to San Antonio was certainly a big leap.  Thousands of miles away from home, really nothing looked recognizable to the Auckland native.

“San Antonio is mostly Hispanic, so that was a big change,” said Wetzell.  “And then being away from family and the ocean, that was definitely a culture shock.  It took a while to acclimate.”

On the court, Wetzell continued to shine.  In just his second year playing organized basketball, he averaged 11.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, earning him Heartland Conference Freshman of the Year honors.  He followed that up in his sophomore year, averaging 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, eclipsing 20 points in six games.  It became abundantly clear that even with just three years of experience under his belt, Wetzell was flat out better than everyone around him.

He knew right away that he could be playing Division-I basketball in a power conference.

“Probably about halfway through my freshman season, I kind of felt that I could take it another level,” said Wetzell.  “Being a freshman and getting a lot of minutes from a young age, having some dominant practices and dominant games, I kind of knew, that’s when I wanted to take it a step up.”

And he did.  Wetzell was a much tougher find for coaches than a player like Ryan was, so coaches had to rely on online film to get a gauge for the Kiwi big man.

“It came online that he was transferring and we got his release and we did research and kind of just went from there with the research that we found,” said Drew of his new center.  “On Synergy [Sports] we got game film and watched it and thought he could be a good fit for us.”

Wetzell fielded several offers, narrowing his choices down to Santa Clara, Purdue, and Vanderbilt before ultimately choosing the Commodores.  He’ll help them fill the void they had in the frontcourt last season.

Now 18 months since their last action on a basketball court, Matt Ryan and Yanni Wetzell will look to show that this team isn’t all about five-star freshmen.  On a team with dramatic roster turnover and young talent, having a couple guys that will bring some experience and maturity from other programs and from a life perspective should aid the Commodores as they embark on their new season.

And even if these two guys come from nearly 9,000 miles apart, they’ve grown to live just mere feet away from each other.

“We’re super close,” said Wetzell of his relationship with Ryan.  “We were roommates last year so it was a lot easier when the guys were on the road and over that Christmas break when they were traveling and we had to be here.  It was great to have that other guy there for support and also to get in the gym and just hang out with.”

“On and off the court, that’s my brother,” said Ryan.

We’ll see if that chemistry can show itself Tuesday when the Commodores tip off against Winthrop to start the season.

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