Basketball was the way of life for Ryan Whitehorse growing up in Page, a small northern Arizona town near Lake Powell and the Utah border.
He grew up playing in youth leagues before enrolling at Page High School where he excelled on the court. He would routinely play in front of thousands, as high school basketball in northern Arizona and its reservations draw large crowds for just about every game.
He grew up with a winning culture and carried that on when he began coaching the girls team at Page once his playing career was over. Whitehorse found success in that position, too. But now, after five years leading the Lady Sand Devils and a year away to work toward a degree in nursing while living in the Valley, he’s ready to share that culture with Casteel High School as the new girls’ basketball coach.
“Going into Page, the program’s success and culture was already built,” Whitehorse said. “My job was to continue it. Casteel is a newer school. I want to be able to build that same culture we had from Page.
“It’s starting already with the coaching staff. We want to expose the girls to that style of basketball by incorporating the fundamentals.”
Whitehorse has been living in Phoenix for a year while attending the University of Arizona. While his primary focus was his education, he quickly began to miss coaching.
He thought about routes he could take to get back in the game but wasn’t sure which was best for him.
Then the job at Casteel opened.
He admits it was a “let’s go for it” moment. He didn’t expect much but hoped to at least land an interview to get a chance at impressing school Athletic Director Ryan Ridenour and the rest of the hiring committee. He did that, and more. He was publicly named head coach April 4.
“We started this process two months ago. I’ve met with multiple candidates and each of them multiple times,” Ridenour said. “Each time, he’s shown why he has been successful, and I think it is going to translate. It’s a different culture, here versus there, but at the same time, the things he speaks about all translate to our kids.”
Whitehorse’s time at Page was filled with triumph and continuing to build a culture that thrives off community involvement and fast-paced play. “Rez ball,” as it’s referred to often, involves pushing the ball up the court at a fast pace and most importantly, wearing down an opponent with a high-scoring affair.
It’s something Page and other schools in northern Arizona have mastered as they routinely win or compete for state titles in the small-school conferences.
While leading his former high school, Whitehorse coached the Lady Sand Devils to a 117-23 record in five seasons. He was named Region Coach of the Year four times during his tenure and 3A Conference Coach of the Year three times.
Under his direction, Page made the state title game all five years, winning three times. The most recent title came in his final season in 2020.
Ridenour believes Whitehorse can find similar success at Casteel. Just four years ago, the Colts made a run to the semifinals. Two years ago, they were the No. 1 seed in the 5A tournament but were forced to forfeit their opening round game after a self-reported violation involving the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s prior contact rule.
“We’ve heard ‘family,’ we’ve heard ‘commitment,’ all the words that mean, ‘I’m all in,’” Ridenour said. “He is all in. There’s no doubt. One big thing I’ve always known in coaches is that winners win. It’s a different style of basketball but he will find a way. I think the brand of ball will be a change, but it will be a change for everyone that sees us.
“There’re some exciting times ahead. I think he is the guy that takes us to another level.”
While just recently announced as the new head coach, Whitehorse already has plans for Casteel.
He aims to establish a similar culture and style of play with the Lady Colts. He said he is bringing down a few of his assistants from Page to join him at the school.
Summer games, including tournaments, are already being planned. Whitehorse said he will try to take Casteel take a tournament in the four-corners region of the state. He also hopes to take them to Page’s annual holiday tournament in the winter.
He knows making the jump from 3A to the 5A Conference will be a learning curve with a slew of talented teams in the field every season. But it’s a challenge he feels he is ready for and one that he wants to face head on.
“There was some success in the beginning with Casteel,” Whitehorse said. “I want to build on that. I want to have that same type of success and culture we had at Page now at Casteel.”