By: Danny Mooers; Dordt Assistant Sports Information Director
The 2019-20 school year brought a new men’s soccer coach to the program in Ryan Gresse and the first-year head coach reflected on his first year with the program.
Ryan Gresse was hired as the head men’s coach at the conclusion of the 2018 season. After one year as a graduate assistant, athletic director Ross Douma offered Gresse an opportunity to lead the men’s soccer program. From there, Gresse had eight months to prepare for his first season as a head collegiate coach.
Standing in front of over 30 collegiate athletes who were facing their third head coach in three years was not something Gresse expected when he accepted the role as a grad assistant. The team had finished with a 6-10-1 record the year prior with only two wins in conference play. Graduating 5 seniors and 4 starters, the men’s soccer program was a blank slate.
Gresse went into the first year with high expectations for performance, but it was more about developing the program’s culture and setting standards throughout the program. A culture of accountability, growth and identity in Christ. Gresse along with assistant coaches Eric Bourdo and Andrew McMillan created a handbook to give to the players clearly outlining everything that was going to be expected of them.
During preseason, the team met and created the goals. Gresse was encouraging players to use their voice and not shy away from expressing their thoughts. This open feeling stretched into the season. Players always knew Gresse’s door was open regardless of how difficult of a conversation it was.
“We didn’t really have any problems with team culture this year,” Gresse said. “Even when we were going through our rough patch, we kept our focus on what mattered. Wins and losses do not define us as Christians. As a team, we focused on our accountability, our growth and our identity through Christ.”
There were numerous defining points throughout the season that exemplified the culture Gresse and the team were creating. The first being the opening game of the year against Viterbo. Dordt possessed the ball throughout the first three minutes and Gideon De Graaf sent a cross in that Patrick Munsey finished to give Dordt a 1-0 lead.
Ten minutes later, Gideon De Graaf scored a diving header off a cross from Luke Foster to give Dordt a 2-0 lead. Dordt found the back of the net three more times in the second half to win the first game of the season 5-0.
The ball was possessed up and down the field. Central midfielders were possessing with the back line and picking out runners in the attack. It was a completely different style than the team played last year.
Feeling confident, the team had over a week off with time to prepare for a non-conference matchup with Friends University. Friends scored three goals within the first thirty minutes and shut down Dordt’s offense.
“We were riding pretty high after we beat Viterbo. We had confidence and felt encouraged by our performance,” Gresse said. “In the match with Friends, we were humbled. They came out the first 30 minutes and pressed us, making it difficult to play out of the back. Credit to them, they did a good job scouting and preparing for us.”
The game finished 5-0 in favor of Friends (a NAIA tournament team). Dordt only had two days of practice to get ready for a matchup against Buena Vista, a team that has always given Dordt a tough game. It ended in a 2-2 tie. Dordt was trailing 2-1 late in the second half but responded with a second goal to force a tie.
Following the loss, Dordt strung together two 1-0 wins in a row over Ottawa and GPAC opponent Presentation. The win over Presentation started a four-game road trip with three of the games being against beatable conference opponents. The Presentation win was followed by a 4-1 loss to non-conference opponent York. It was a lack of focus and preparation that led to the defeat, something that Gresse saw immediately and put on his list of things to learn from.
“Facing adversity by going through the ups and downs in the first few weeks was helpful,” Gresse said. “Holding on against Ottawa then going into Presentation and winning in the last 10 minutes on a penalty showed where we were mentally. We weren’t going to be shaken. We bounced back from the Friends loss and learned valuable lessons throughout the season.”
Next on the schedule was Dakota Wesleyan. The Tigers provided another mental hurdle for Dordt. The Defenders believed Jordan Brantsen won the game with a few minutes left in the final overtime, but the referees ruled him offside. Doane was on the schedule three days later and it was one Gresse picked out in the spring as a game he knew was a must win. Dordt had lost to Doane 2-0 the previous two years. With only the top eight teams advancing to the GPAC Tournament, Doane was one of the bubble teams that Dordt needed to beat.
Doane chalked up another 2-0 victory over Dordt. After this loss, there were 11 games left in the rest of the season and all were against strong opponents. The Waldorf and Bellevue games were both non-conference and Gresse was thankful for quality non-conference opponents. It was a chance to play against different challenges and exposed some of the areas they needed to improve on to be a top competitor in conference.
Even in the 5-1 loss to Bellevue, Gresse saw glimpses of what the team was aiming for during the second half. The next game was against Northwestern and he wasn’t over the 6-0 “beatdown” Dordt received from the Red Raiders in 2018.
He continued to depend on what he calls a “Representative Democracy” when preparing for the games. The captains and graduate assistants met after practices and discussed different options as they prepared for the game. Eric Bourdo, a Graduate Assistant and three-year player at Dordt knew the conference well along with the rest of the upperclassmen. Gresse realized that not utilizing their experience would be a mistake.
“I appreciated the perspectives and input they were willing to provide,” Gresse said. “At the end of the day, the decisions were ultimately up to me, but they knew I would take what they said to heart.”
The Defenders were feeling confident heading into the Northwestern game. They had outplayed Bellevue for a half and there was no film on the game for the Red Raiders to scout. A rivalry game, playing under the lights and bitterness from the previous year’s loss set the Defenders up to have a solid performance.
“Looking back, there are bits and pieces of games I would like back, but Northwestern wasn’t one of them. The guys came out motivated, played well and gave everything they had,” Gresse said. Ultimately, the Defenders fell short and lost 1-0. The chances were there, but finishing was their Achilles heel.
“I remember Mika (De Vin) and Patty (Patrick Munsey) addressed the team after the Northwestern game and told the guys to keep their head high. They were satisfied with the performance and their confidence was boosted,” Gresse said.
After Northwestern, Dordt fell 3-0 to Briar Cliff on a snowy Defender Day’s weekend and 4-0 to Mount Marty the Wednesday after. The matchup with top GPAC opponent Morningside was looming and Gresse figured it was as good of time as any to modify their style of play. The team went from trying to circulate the ball and playing possession in what many would deem “beautiful soccer” to playing more direct and making life miserable for the opponent through constant pressure.
Patrick Munsey was moved from the middle of the field to the outside and a steady rotation of players at the forward position was created. Gresse wanted his guys to put as much pressure on the other team as possible. Playing with a high press in an attempt to force the opponents back line into turnovers was the name of the game.
“Morningside did not expect our press,” Gresse said. “We caught them off guard and were able to knock a goal in. It was encouraging to see the guys adapt and accept the new system.”
With confidence continuing to develop, Dordt took the same philosophy into Jamestown. It was a 120-minute dog fight with both teams controlling the game for chunks at a time. The chances came in droves for the Defenders, but lack of finishing came back to bite once again. It wasn’t a win, but it was another encouraging step in the right direction.
There were two games left in the season and Dordt had little chances of making the GPAC tournament. This time last year, Dordt had played Northwestern last and lost 6-0. Gresse knew he had to go out fighting, because anything can happen at the end of the season.
The first challenge was an away match at Hastings. The five-hour drive to play the most storied GPAC soccer program in history is no easy task. Hastings had just lost a conference game to Midland. They played motivated and put in four goals in during the first half.
“At halftime, I told the guys to enjoy the game and to go down swinging,” Gresse said.
Garret Vander Zee finished a Gideon De Graaf assist two minutes into the second half and Dordt walked away with the 4-1 loss. Taking the half from Hastings was another moral victory, something that the team viewed as a step in the right direction.
Dordt took the momentum into the Midland game and Zach Froehlich put Dordt on top 1-0 in the 35th minute. Midland answered with three straight goals, but Dordt’s resilience continued to show. Munsey scored with five seconds to go in the game and the Defenders capped the season with a 3-2 loss.
The takeaways from year one were numerous for the team. Game preparation, systems, practice plans, recovery, film and all the other aspects of being a head coach were adapted throughout the year. None were done perfectly in year one, and they likely won’t be perfected in year two, but creating a culture comes with growing pains. The slate is a little less blank after year one and year two begins in eight months. Gresse is proud of the progress the team has made in this season so far and eight months is a lot of time to continually make improvements.
“We grew in a lot of areas this year. Yes, on the soccer field, but a lot off the field as well,” Gresse said. “It’s now time to add depth and recruit players that believe in the vision for this program. The future is bright and we’ll see who we can surprise next year.”