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Kym Royster leaves quiet but meaningful legacy for IU women's basketball



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Sophomore Jaelynn Penn and senior Kym Royster box out freshman Christina Britter on Nov. 25 in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. IU beat Northern Illinois University, 91-73. Claire Livingston Buy Photos

All four roads around Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall were backed up on March 3,and one of the gridlocked cars belonged to the family of Kym Royster, who would soon be playing her final home game as a Hoosier.

With 5,857 eager fans ready to send off their Hoosiers to the postseason, Royster’s mother and other family members weren’t going to make it in time for the pregame Senior Day festivities: Walking up to center court with Royster, hugging the coaches and posing for a picture with Royster’s framed uniform.

The pregame ceremony was going to be short that day, as just Royster and fellow senior Grace Withrow were being honored. Withrow went first, and as she walked up, Royster’s family still hadn’t been able to get past security in time. 

She elected to have Director of Basketball Operations Liz Honegger walk up with her as Assembly Hall Public Address announcer Chuck Crabb listed off Royster’s accomplishments, ranging everywhere from her GPA to her points per game averages. 

The only person who wasn’t listening to the accolades Crabb listed off was Royster. Once she had reached IU Coach Teri Moren, the two embraced one another, hugging for 10 seconds.

Royster pulled away from the hug, wiping away tears before they streaked down her face. It wasn’t the end, but it was a premature goodbye to her coach.

It was the last time she would play in Assembly Hall with her coaches and teammates. Royster will leave as the all-time winningest player in program history but perhaps more importantly, the first four-year recruit under Moren and her staff since they came to Bloomington in 2014. 

“She was just saying how proud she was of me and that she loved me,” Royster said. “We’ve been through the highs and the lows together.”

***

Licking County Family YMCA in Newark, Ohio, looks the part of an older elementary school with its low-to-the-ground build and bricked architecture.

But inside it’s like any other YMCA. The only classrooms are ones for daycare students and summer camp preschoolers and kindergartners, while a majority of the building is filled with weight rooms, a gymnastics setup, racquetball rooms and, of course, basketball courts. 

When Royster was in the third grade, she didn’t spend too much time on the treadmills or even the 4-foot deep end of the swimming pool. Instead, she joined her friends on the basketball court. 

As she got older, she became taller than most and quickly moved from the traction-less courts at the YMCA to the talent-filled courts at the AAU scene. 

Her height kept her involved in other sports such as softball and volleyball. Going into her freshman year at Newark High School, Royster injured her wrist on her shooting hand. Royster still played through her volleyball season in the fall, but the constant reps of being a middle hitter and ferociously spiking the ball over the net caused further damage. 

After the season ended, Royster went to a doctor and found out she had a broken wrist and needed surgery. She was in a hard cast for about three months and had to sit out the entire regular season for basketball that year. 

“That’s when I was like, ‘I’m going to ditch these other sports because basketball is what I want to play in college,’” Royster said. 

Royster dominated on the court when she made her return from injury, going on to average 20.3 points per game for her high school career and led Newark to conference, regional and district championships in her senior year with a 27-2 record. 

She would get the occasional letter in the mail from certain colleges, but none were ever personalized. 

“I knew I wanted to pursue DI basketball,” Royster said. “But I didn’t know to the extent of Indiana. Big Ten. Big school like this.”

Kym Royster dribbles the ball up the court during one of her high school games at Newark High School in Newark, Ohio. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos
***

Assistant coach Rhet Wierzba came to IU in 2014 with Moren from Indiana State University after former head coach Curt Miller resigned and became the head coach of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun.

They came to Bloomington in August, 2014, just three months before the season started. The first order of business was to try and keep Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill from decommitting from IU and going elsewhere. Mission accomplished. 

The Hoosiers went 15-16 in Moren’s inaugural season. In fall 2014, Wierzba was handling recruiting just like he did at Indiana State, and the first recruit he went after was Royster. 

“We knew we needed size,and she was a name that had come up,” Wierzba said. “After our first evaluation day, we drove over and watched her lift weights and do an open gym.” 

Wierzba said it was after that day when he saw potential in Royster to help the team. 

Royster and her mom took the four-hour trip from Newark to visit the campus, and the feeling was unlike any other college she visited. That wasn’t because the limestone buildings, the state-of-the-art athletic facilities or even the beauty of Bloomington; it was how the campus and city treated women’s basketball.

Wierzba said when players or coaches go out to eat around campus or in the city, people will stop them and ask to take pictures because they know about the program and are fans of it. 

“The community loves women’s basketball,” Royster said. “I took other visits, and it was always either men’s basketball or football, so like coming here it was nice to have fans in the community that supported women’s basketball as much as men’s basketball.”

Royster committed to IU along with three others that year. The competition for the starting spot was tough with Jenn Anderson, Alexis Gassion and Amanda Cahill as the clear front runners to play majority of the paint minutes. 

Despite never starting, Royster played in all 33 games off the bench, averaging 12 minutes, four points and three rebounds per game. 

That season was the first time in 14 years IU made the NCAA Tournament and first time in 33 years it advanced to the second round. Royster played 16 minutes in the first game against the University of Georgia and scored four points with six rebounds. In the Round of 32 loss to a 33-1 Notre Dame team, Royster finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes played, her second career double-double. 

“Before you come to college, you watch all these teams in the NCAA Tournament, and then a year later, when you’re in college, you get to be there,” Royster said. “It was a surreal feeling.”

***

Royster, Danielle Williams, Laken Wairau, Darby Foresman, Ria Gulley, Bre Wickware and Tia Elbert were the seven underclassmen on the roster that were recruited by Moren and her staff heading into Royster’s sophomore season. 

The 6-foot-2-inch forward played every game except one, but this time started in six, and put up identical numbers to her freshman year. The team just missed the NCAA Tournament and wound up advancing to the quarterfinals of the WNIT. 

In the offseason heading into her junior year, Royster had a decision to make. 

Five of the seven underclassmen from the past season had all either transferred or left the team during the season or over the summer. Royster had formed bonds with those players and found herself wondering if she, too, wanted to take her career elsewhere. 

“It was overwhelming,” Royster said.

She elected to stay, and with Jenn Anderson and Alexis Gassion graduating, Royster knew she had an opportunity to up her average to more than 12 minutes per game. 

She said she put in the work from May through the summer into the preseason because she had a feeling her role as a center was going to increase.

“I felt like I was going to own that position,” Royster said. 

Royster was one of just four players to return from the previous year along with Cahill and Buss. The Hoosiers added five new freshmen, one walk-on and two transfers to round out the 12-women roster.

Royster established herself as the team’s primary post player, averaging 28 minutes, 10 points and six rebounds per game as the team barely missed the NCAA Tournament again but went on to win the WNIT Championship. 

“Her junior year was sort of a breakout year for her,” Moren said. “I would say she was the most improved player in the Big Ten.”

But the spotlight was never directly on Royster through that title run. Most attention focused on the end of the historic playing careers of Buss and Cahill and even shifted to the impressive, confident starts for freshmen Jaelynn Penn and Bendu Yeaney. 

All 37 games, Royster was that fifth starter, quietly shooting 56% from the field and scoring double figures. 

Wierzba thinks of the WNIT title game against Virginia Tech, in front a record-breaking crowd of 13,007 fans, where IU couldn’t get anything going from the perimeter, so it went in the post to Royster on back-to-back possessions to start to get some momentum.

“She was able to see a vision of where we wanted to go and how we were going to get there,” Wierzba said. “She played an integral role in all of it.”

Senior forward Kym Royster attempts to block Michigan State on Feb.11. The Spartans beat the Hoosiers 77-61. Chase Weiss, The State News Buy Photos
***

With 29 seconds remaining on Feb. 3 at Nebraska, IU led by three, trying to hang on to a lead after dropping its previous two games. 

A Nebraska guard missed two free throws, and Royster snatched the rebound, getting fouled immediately. Standing at the charity stripe with nine seconds left, she needed to make at least one free throw to seal the game. 

She missed the first. 

The 4,000 Nebraska fans in attendance roared in hopes of her missing the second, but the senior stood there calmly and silenced the crowd by making the free throw. She finished the game with 19 points and 14 rebounds — six offensive — her highest outing of the season. 

“That’s probably the best game of her career,” Moren said after the game.  

Three days later, Royster scored just four points, grabbed five rebounds and picked up three fouls in a four-point home loss to Minnesota. 

It was that type of inconsistency that shadowed over her shoulder during her four-year career at IU. 

As one of the more undersized post players in the Big Ten conference, Royster at times struggled to stay confident, and with every high, a low seemed to follow. 

“It was frustrating,” Royster said. 

She gives credit to Wierzba, who works with the post players, as one of the reasons she was able to stay positive through it all. 

Royster has a 6-foot-6-inch wingspan and is one of the team’s better lower-body lifters, so she began to notice how she could be effective on the defensive end against bigger players, becoming more active and not sitting behind the post.

“She started to figure out how to be successful,” Wierzba said. “Her defense continued to get more effective in that way.”

Her leadership also grew, but not in the loud sense that junior Brenna Wise brought to the table. Instead, Royster would bring players over to the side during practice and offer tips or speak during the game when the team would huddle up. 

Royster is quiet, to herself and doesn’t say much to the media when she sits at the table during press conferences.

But behind closed doors, when IU hit a low this season, losing six of seven games, Moren said Royster helped the team get through it. 

After two straight years of making the WNIT, Royster wanted to get back to the NCAA Tournament like she tasted her freshman year. 

On Selection Monday, the Hoosiers were named a No. 10 seed and went to Eugene, Oregon. IU won its first game in the tournament against Texas.

All the hype and noise surrounding the team once again wasn’t shown directly on Royster, but rather the new duo of Ali Patberg and Wise and the continued emergence of Penn and Yeaney. 

Royster, still that fifth starter, became the first IU player since 1995 to reach the NCAA Tournament two times in her career and the only player in program history to win two NCAA Tournament games. 

“It’s a great feeling, and it just speaks volume to where this program is heading,” Royster said. “I just know that Coach Moren is going to take this program to high success.”

Royster will graduate in May as the second person in her family to graduate college. She will leave Bloomington with 88 career wins, the most of all-time, and finished every season with 20 or more wins. 

“I just want people to remember my hard work,” Royster said. “Sometimes the things that I do may go under the radar.” 

Her favorite memory is traveling to Italy with the team in summer 2017, where it saw the Vatican and went on gondolas. Royster wants to pursue a career overseas after she graduates and has reached out to players like Cahill and Gassion, who are currently playing overseas, for advice. 

Royster will be the only player to play all four years under Moren since her arrival in 2014. She said she’s happy she made the decision to stay and now players like Penn, Yeaney, freshmen Grace Berger and Aleksa Gulbe will follow suit. 

“She was such a great example of what patience looks like,” Moren said. “She’s been a great representative of the kinds of kids we want in our program. She’s been about her team.”

***

The hug on Senior Day was more than just a goodbye, but also a thank you for becoming the first of many hard-working four-year players. Royster said she can’t thank Moren and the coaching staff enough, but also wouldn’t have been able to do without her teammates. 

“The relationships I have built with each of them are going to go a long way,” Royster said. “That’s one thing that makes me the saddest about leaving. We see each other as family.”

Her teammates could tell Royster got emotional after her 10-second embrace with Moren, so they all ran up into her and joined her in a big group hug. 

Her teammates posed beside her framed number 11 jersey for a picture. Her mom and company had still not made it into the stands — they would for the start of the game — but she was still surrounded by family. 

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