Interview: Ryan Souders, Calvin men's coach
D3Soccer.com had the opportunity to interview the coaches of the four men’s teams heading to the Final Four in Kansas City. Ryan Souders, head coach at Calvin, spoke with Ryan Harmanis about the Knights’ difficult run through the tournament, their incredible team culture, and their malleable playing style heading into this weekend.
|Ryan Souders - 4th-year head coach of Calvin
Calvin College Athletics
Ryan Harmanis: Congratulations, first of all, on your first Final Four as a coach. Can you talk about your team’s run so far, thoughts on any of the games?
Coach Ryan Souders: Well, we’ve been doing, along with the other three teams, at least a couple of things right to get here. I don’t mean that arrogantly or in passing, but to get to a Final Four is really tough. I think we’ve had a really difficult road, just like everyone else here. Even Mount Aloysius, we outshot them pretty well, but that was as athletic a team as I’ve seen in my four years at Calvin. Then Ohio Wesleyan: anyone would tell you that, at least in my time here, that’s been a huge battle. They beat us at their place [2-1] two years ago, we beat them at our place last year [2-1 in overtime]. Then, of course, we tied them in the second round last year [1-1, Ohio Wesleyan advanced on penalties], but I’d rather have been on the Ohio Wesleyan side of that tie. Relatively quickly since I’ve been here here, that’s been an unbelievable relationship for us. They’ve been one of the gold standards, and to be able to go toe-to-toe with them for four years, it’s been huge for our program. Looking back, that was a really big win for our team. After losing in PKs last year, knowing they’re so good—for this team in particular—it was really big to get that win at their place. Especially being down a goal at half, to turn things around in the second half against a great team was huge for us.
RH: I was in the stands that night, and I think that was easily one of the best games of the tournament just in terms of the quality of the soccer played. Can you talk about what you said at halftime [trailing 1-0]? We were in the stands thinking, okay, this is the first time Calvin has trailed all year, our guys [Ohio Wesleyan] need a second goal. And then the second half rolled around and it just totally flipped and your team dominated to win 2-1. Tactical adjustments, or just getting back to how your team likes to play?
Coach Souders: I think one leads to the other. We didn’t make any big tactical adjustments from what we normally try to do, but we made tactical adjustments from what we were actually doing in the first half. To be honest, I’m not Jose Mourinho; at halftime I just told the guys, “Look, we can’t come up with an entirely new tactical game plan in fifteen minutes. We’re not good enough coaches. But we’re not giving a good enough account of ourselves. We’re down a goal, but let’s go out and play the way we know how to play. And if we lose playing the way we know how to play and the way we’ve played all year, we can live with that. But we can’t live going down like this, playing on the back foot, diving in, just pumping the balls to the channels.”
I don’t think that was consistent with the way we’ve tried to play. We’re not Barcelona by any means, but I didn’t think we’d given a good account of ourselves, and to be honest I just told our guys that they’ve earned better, that they could show better of themselves. So in one sense there was no huge tactical adjustment, but, in another, there was in that I think we tried to play the way that we’d played up to that point in the season.
RH: I’ve been asking the coaches about knocks against their teams. One for you, although it’s mostly out of your control, is the schedule. The MIAA handicaps you a bit with the double round robin, so it’s 14 league games. How does that affect you?
Coach Souders: Here’s where I’m a bit torn. I love and respect our league, I love being a part of it. I love our coaches, I think we all have good relationships, and in that sense we’re happy to be a part of it and since we’re here [at the Final Four], it’s hard to say that the MIAA didn’t prepare us to get here. So that’s the first thing I’d say, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. But on the other hand, it’s the NCAA tournament, every team is good, every team has won their league or NCAA-level games during the year. I don’t care what conference you’re looking at, the NESCAC, the NCAC, the Centennial, those conferences are “better” than the MIAA in terms of team success, but teams from those conferences would also tell you that tournament games, in general, are just a different animal.
Part of the nature of Division III, I get it, we get slammed for our strength of schedule, and it’s 14 league games that can be up to 16 because of the conference tournament. But we try to schedule pretty good, if not very good non-league games. Any year in Division III, teams can ebb and flow, so some teams that were tournament teams last year are a bit down this year. It’s hard to compare apples to apples when we went out east and played two pretty good teams [Endicott and Gordon] that had excellent seasons. You can look at it either way, but I love the MIAA and I’m proud we’re a part of it and we’re proud to represent them. But we would certainly acknowledge that the double round robin prohibits us from playing more teams consistently at the national level.
RH: Turning to your players, can you talk about this year’s team? What makes them special, that you’ve been able to get Calvin back to the Final Four for the first time since 2011?
Coach Souders: Well, no one in this group has been to the Final Four. I think what makes this team unique is that you won’t see a number ten on our roster. Our goals are distributed, we aren’t looking for a guy to carry us. Our team’s buy-in has been as good as I’ve ever seen it in terms of team culture. It’s a group of guys, all 26, who just love being together. One of the things we’re really excited about is that we’re one of four teams, and hopefully one of two teams, that have extended their seasons as long as possible. Most guys will tell you, yes, we like to win, and of course we’d love to win this whole thing, but primarily it’s about time together. It’s a great group of guys, the more time I get to spend with them the better, and I think our guys would echo that sentiment.
RH: On a more personal note, you went to Wheaton (Ill.), which is a Christian school, strong values, now you’re at Calvin, which has similar values. Was that always the plan, to try to pick a school that aligned with your values?
Coach Souders: Yes and no. In a broader sense, for coaching there needs to be institutional values. And that’s what I love about Division III in general. But the reality is that whatever happens this weekend, it’s not going to drastically change the outcome of our young men’s lives. A Calvin degree will; hopefully a Calvin experience will, a Calvin soccer experience. The same goes for an Amherst experience, Loras, SUNY Oneonta. For me, institutional value mattered the most. Personally, the faith piece has always been incredibly important. I think it’s what brought me to places like Wheaton, places like Calvin, and it’s the most important facet of our program. To say that it was a prerequisite for my coaching isn’t necessarily the case. I coached at Davidson College prior to coming here, and there wasn’t as much of a faith component there. But for me this is the best of all worlds.
RH: Now looking at individual players, this is my favorite question: Do you have a player who isn’t going to get a postseason award, who doesn’t score a bunch of goals, is not a “big name” player, but is just a hugely important cog in your team?
Coach Souders: Man, we have a bunch of those guys. I’ll give you two. On one end, David Watterson, who plays almost every minute of every game for us. He doesn’t get a lot of accolades, doesn’t score a lot of goals, doesn’t get a ton of assists, isn’t physically overpowering. David just does the work. Every day he comes to training, he doesn’t complain, he just works. He loves soccer and I think he loves the program, and he’s a guy that just makes us go in many ways.
The other guy is Lyall Blanche. He doesn’t play much for us at all, he’s maybe had a total of fifteen minutes all year. But when you talk about culture guys, character guys, Lyall is right up at the top. He loves being a part of this program, he serves, he works hard, he pushes guys in training. He pushes for minutes, this isn’t to say he doesn’t want to play, but I think he’s accepted his role and bought in to what we’ve asked of him, as much or more than any player on any team I’ve ever been a part of. There’s no underhanded, I wish this guy wouldn’t do well, or anger about why coach isn’t playing me. When guys see that he’s happy, he’s excited to be here, and he’s playing less than almost everyone else, I think that really squelches even other guys being negative because his attitude has been so amazing.
RH: You can speak to this probably better than anyone [Coach Souders was the starting goalkeeper for Wheaton (Ill.) when they were the national runners-up in 2006]. What does it mean to have Niko Giantsopoulos in goal?
Coach Souders: Niko is one of the best, really. This probably comes from years of goalkeeping experience that I probably need counseling for [laughs], but I don’t think goalkeepers get enough credit for organizing things so that they don’t see shots. So just because guys aren’t seeing shots doesn’t mean they aren’t doing a great job. So on the front end, he does a really good job communicating and organizing our back line so that we’re able to limit chances. But then, when things break down or teams are good enough to create chances, he can make the save that keeps us in a game or even to win us a game. He makes the big saves, he’s always ready, his mind is always engaged. I would hope his soccer days get to continue after this [senior] season, but he’s just been a rock for us. He’s enabled the rest of our team to play with a confidence that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
RH: A question on style of play. As we talk to the coaches, teams are described as playing a certain way. Loras, for example, is self-described as direct. I would describe your team as kind of direct, but in a different sense. It seems like you try to get the ball up field and into attack quickly, but you do it on the ground, and you often play through your wingers. Can you describe how you like to play?
Coach Souders: I think we want to play good soccer. It’s the most fun; it’s creative. I’m not going to sit here and say we play like Barcelona, and I think any Division III coach who would is probably a liar [laughs], but we want to try and play and recruit players who can play. But sometimes the nature of tournament games is that you need to be a little more direct. Our style of play, we would imagine to be malleable. We like to get it to our wingers, we think we have some attacking ability and speed there, and then we think we have some technical guys in the midfield. I’ll use that word again, malleable. We can adapt, and we’ve had to do that this tournament. We’ve had long spells of possession, but if we’re honest, we’ve had to defend for portions of games.
I don’t think we want to be a program that says, “This is what we’ll do, period.” Because different weather, different fields, different circumstances, injuries, may dictate that things change. We want to try and play, but ultimately different scenarios and situations mean that we may have to adjust what we want to try to do.
RH: Looking towards your matchup with Loras, what do you know at this point about them?
Coach Souders: We don’t know a whole lot about them with regards to this year, but their playoff record speaks for itself. They’ve just been phenomenal, Dan [Rothert, head coach at Loras] has just done an amazing job, so I think that’s the first thing. They’re a tournament savvy team. They have a lot of experience, and they’re extremely well coached. So we do know that. At the end of the day, it’s the Final Four. All of the teams are good teams and are capable of scoring at any point and will be tough to break down. You look at all four teams: they’ve scored quite a few goals and haven’t given up many. At some point, something will break, and it may be little things for or against that will hopefully help us get a result on Friday.
RH: None of the teams in the Final Four have won a national championship, but all have been to multiple Final Fours in the last decade. Is that something you talk about with your players, the opportunity to be the first Calvin team to win the national championship?
Coach Souders: I have to be honest with you and say that it’s not, even though that may be the “right” thing or cliché for me to say. I think part of that comes from the fact that none of these players have been to the Final Four. What Coach [Chris] Hughes did before I got here was amazing, and I think we’ve tried to pick up where he left off, although it took us a little bit of time. But our goal has always been one game at a time, truly, and we can’t even think about Saturday before Friday. What’s great about this program, coming full circle, is that a lot of the soccer excellence that was here before I ever set foot on campus is institutional. It’s bringing in kids that want to be part of a Christian, liberal arts, academically excellent institution. So I think that’s the first and foremost thing that allows us to establish ourselves at a national level, is that kids want to be a part of Calvin soccer.
Second, I think that while we don’t talk about it, it’s in the back of everyone’s minds. I think anybody who tells you otherwise is probably not being fully forthright. It would be really cool, and you look at Calvin in the past few years. Our women’s volleyball team has a couple national championships, our cross-country team has a few, men’s basketball back around 2000. What’s great is that it’s an institution that has done this before, and I think we’d love to try and finish something off.
RH: Finally, if you had to name a single thing that your team needs to be successful this weekend, what would it be?
Coach Souders: I would just say we need to stay committed to the cause, committed to what we’ve been doing all year. We want to play each game the same way, and as fun as the Final Four is, there are a lot of extracurriculars in there. I think for us the key is to take in the fun things but stay committed to the cause of why we’re headed to Kansas City. Nothing guarantees victory at this point, but I think it will give us the best chance to have success this weekend.
RH: Thanks so much, Coach, and good luck this weekend.
No. 3 Calvin (24-0-1) takes on No. 17 Loras (17-4-1) in the second men’s semifinal at 7:30pm CT (8:30pm ET) on Friday, December 4th.
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.