Have game, will travel

Ruhlman embraces playing for Western Pa Bruins, part of the new Girls Under Armour Association circuit

Warren’s Emma Ruhlman (40) poses with the rest of her Western Pa Bruins 2022 Zeise teammates. The group had a successful 2019, the first under the newly formed Under Armour Association Girls cicruit. From left to right are coach Paul Zeise, Bailey Kuhns, Emma Fischer, Sarah Santicola, Bailey Shriver, Ruhlman, Abigail Mankins, Hallie Cowan, Emma Dziezgowski and Helene Cowan.

Emma Ruhlman surmises she slept in her own bed four days in the month of July.

Her mother, Lisa LaVan, offers a slight correction, saying it was actually three.

Such is the life of an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball player competing on the Under Armour Association circuit.

This was the first year of the Girls UAA, one of three newly formed grassroots platforms along with the Girls UA Rise and Girls UA future, encompassing 17U to 10U. It rivals the country’s other top circuit, the Nike EYBL.

“It stemmed a little bit from Steph Curry and the girl that wrote the letter,” LaVan said.

Emma Ruhlman (left) guards an opposing point guard while playing for the Western PA Bruins AAU team.

That girl was Riley Morrison, then 9, who asked Curry why his ‘Curry 5’ shoes were not available for girls.

It’s fair to say that Curry, UA’s most recognizable basketball client, had a big hand in Under Armour’s new-found commitment to women’s basketball.

They brought in some of the top programs in the country, one of which is the Western PA Bruins, of which Ruhlman had completed her first year with last summer.

“Walking in you wouldn’t have guessed that this was their first year running it,” Ruhlman said. “Everything went really smooth. The people running it knew what they were doing.”

Playing for the Bruins, and having a two-plus hour drive just to get to practice in suburban Pittsburgh can take its toll. But Ruhlman, as well as her mom and her entire family are all in.

“I’m so thankful,” Emma said about the support of her family.

“It takes a village,” LaVan said. “Tim, my husband, has stepped up a lot. My parents have stepped up a lot. I wouldn’t do it if she wasn’t committed. She is.”

Tryouts were in September, and Ruhlman impressed.

“That’s when I made the 9th-grade national Under Armour team and got my coach, Paul Zeise,” she said.

Ruhlman had a positive impression of Zeise before she even found out he was her coach.

“My first impression of him was I saw a coach screaming at this girl,” she said with a laugh. “I looked over and thought, I’d love to play for him.”

She got her wish.

“I was in the best shape of my life this season,” she said. “There are a few drills I won’t share with her (motions to her mom), becauseI don’t want to ever go through them again. But I loved it.”

Her mom, of course, is the head coach of the Warren Lady Dragons, and both mother and daughter played pivotal roles in helping Warren capture its second District 10 title in program history last season.

With the Bruins under Zeise, Ruhlman was paired with nine other players – twins Hallie and Helene Cowan of Chartiers Valley, Emma Dzizegowski (Bethel Park), Emma Fischer (North Allegheny), Bailey Kuhns (Southmoreland), Abigail Mankins (Greensburg Salem), Sarah Santicola (Moon Township), Bailey Shriver (Bishop McCort) and Mia Webber (South Fayette).

Chartiers Valley went undefeated en route to the PIAA 5A stat

e title, including edging Oakland Catholic by three in the quarterfinals. Oakland Catholic, of course, knocked off Warren in the first round.

The Cowans jumped right in with their new teammates when they were done with their high school season, and the group gelled very quickly.

“My team and I, right away we all clicked,” Ruhlman said. “It was so cool to be with girls who are all working toward the same goal that you are. Everybody there wants to play college basketball. Everybody is working to get to that place. My team and the two other Under Armour teams, the 16U and 17U would practice together. So you’re scrimmaging against older girls and getting better.”

From April through July, the Bruins went to Pittsburgh, Columbus, Spooky Nook (Manheim), Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and capped off their season at the GUAA Finals in Atlanta.

And they featured the best of the best – which included the Bruins and their teams. Among them were the likes of Paige Bueckers, the No. 1 prospect in the country who has verbally committed to UConn.

“Under Armour just went out and got great programs,” Lavan said. “Really what it comes down to is it got to a point where AAU was getting watered down. Under Armour wanted to provide a place for coaches to go where they can see very good talent and know there are good programs. That’s why the Bruins exist and that’s why Under Armour did this was to get them the exposure that they need.”

Along the way, Ruhlman developed a great rapport with her teammates and Zeise, both on and off the court.

“He (Zeise) cares a lot, and so do all the coaches with the Bruins,” she said. “They get us to the right tournaments and make sure we get seen. But they also make sure we still have fun while we’re doing it.”

And as for her teammates with the Bruins?

“You have to like your team because you are with them all the time,” she said. “From April to May, every single weekend we had a tournament. July we were together, living in a hotel for a week straight.”

And like she alluded to, all of them have the same goal – to play high-level college basketball.

It’s at those tournaments where they play in front of college coaches, who sit in their own designated area and observe the talent on hand.

“The coaches get booklets and have all of your information,” Ruhlman added.

College coaches aren’t allowed to contact prospective recruits until Sept. 1 of their junior year. But the player, as well as their coaches, can contact them.

“When she goes to elite camps and once she’s on campus they are free to talk,” LaVan said. “You may not know what you want to major in, because you don’t. You may not know where you want to go to school, because you’re way too young. But you start to ask those questions. Do you want to be far from home? Do you want to be in a city? She’s got a lot of flavors for elite camps to try and narrow that down a little bit.”

Ruhlman has visited the likes of Vermont, Canisius, and La Salle already.

And all of it, the camps, the tournaments, and practices have all helped her to get better as she heads into her sophomore season.

“My shooting,” she said about what part of her game has improved the most. “Both of us have never really realized it, but to become a knock-down, great shooter it takes a lot of shots. A lot. Coach puts us through a lot of shooting drills. Playing at such a high speed also helps because I got to work on getting my shot off quicker. I had to or I wouldn’t get any shots off.

“Another big thing is my defense. Guarding other guards. Even from just the beginning of AAU season to the end. I would say those are the wo main areas, but I definitely improved in other ways and there’s a lot more I can do to get better.”

Ruhlman played at guard, her natural position, after having to play in the post for the Lady Dragons last season.

But she’s thankful for all of those experiences, which have helped her to become a better player. She also knows she can get a lot better. And she will.

Her mother points to people like Craig Dunn (Emma’s first coach with the Bruins), Zeise and John Tate, Executive Director of the Bruins, for not only helping her daughter and other players get to where they want to be, but for running a first-class program as well.

“John Tate runs the organization (Bruins) and he does it for the right reasons,” she said. “There’s no politics. If you can play, you’re on the team. That’s what I really like about it. We didn’t really know anybody. Her game is what spoke.”

And Emma loves it every bit as much.

“It’s been awesome,” she said. “Basketball has been so important to me and to my family. To play against the best teams in the country and with the best girls in Western PA, I’m just so thankful for the opportunity.”