By Jake Knabel, Concordia (Neb.) Director of Athletic Communications
May 1, 2017, will always be remembered as a joyous day in the history of Concordia baseball. A Midland loss to Doane meant that the Bulldogs had captured the GPAC regular-season title – and it was theirs alone. Not since 1986 had Concordia baseball celebrated a conference championship. Back then, head coach Reuben Stohs’ squad competed in the old Nebraska Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
The end of a 31-year drought and the program’s first-ever trip to the national tournament provided plenty of reason for the emotional outbursts that were translated by many players to 140 characters or less on social media. But there is a whole lot more. This is a story about a transcendent team that overcame not just history, but unforeseen challenges that could have ripped it apart. Says head coach Ryan Dupic, “This story was about multiple people coming together. That’s what it takes. We had so much help along the way.”
There may end up being more successful years for the Concordia baseball program, but there will never be another quite like 2017. Said senior pitcher Josh Prater, “I keep telling people that we could have a movie just about this.”
There will be no excuses
This movie gets started with a somber opening scene. Dupic had been looking forward to his third season leading the Bulldogs, but on this particular day, the players watched their head coach break down right before their eyes. A not-so-typical preseason meeting had been called. Dupic informed his players that he had been diagnosed with a form of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. It would force him to be away from the team for most of the month of January and for many practices and some games throughout the season.
“It was the first time that I cried about it,” Dupic said. “It hadn’t really hit me until I stood in front of them and realized that I wouldn’t be able to be with them every day. I like to be with my players every day.”
The timing seemed just as unfair as the circumstances themselves. Not only was a new season on the horizon, but Ryan and his wife Abby had just welcomed their first born, son Cole, into their family. For a while, Ryan tried to forget and ignore the growth on his tongue. Pretty soon he just couldn’t do that any longer. He sought help. At first he was told by medical personnel that “it’s nothing.” At a doctor’s advice, he applied cream to his tongue two-to-three times per day for more than a month.
It got worse. Says Ryan, “It just kept bothering me. Finally I said, ‘We need to figure something out here because it’s just really bothering me.’ It was affecting the way I was eating. I went to a specialist and they did another biopsy. That’s when we found it was cancerous (in December 2016). When I went back the second time, I felt like something’s going on here. This probably isn’t going to be very good. We kind of looked into it already and I had that gut feeling that this wasn’t going to end up very well.”
In the middle of January, Dupic underwent a surgical operation that removed half of his tongue, negatively affecting his ability to eat and speak. A muscle removed from his thigh was attached to his tongue as part of the procedure. This was just the beginning. He would spend significant time in the hospital before returning to campus and to the team. Even then, there were plenty of struggles to come in the immediate future.
“It was challenging to see that happen to a close friend and a mentor,” said assistant coach Bryce Berg. “I just really wanted to be there to help any way that I could. I remember how tough it was for him to stand in front of our guys and talk about it.”
While addressing his team in that teary-eyed preseason meeting, Dupic spoke with conviction when he told them “there will be no excuses through this process.” Dupic reasoned that the game of baseball would not give them more runs or outs because of his cancer.
Says Ryan, “I don’t know why, but I’ve never really thought about it in terms of why this happened. I just felt like this is what happened and you have to move forward because there’s stuff to be done. That’s how we did it.”
Selling a vision
Dupic has attacked cancer with the same zest and zeal that he used to breathe life into a baseball program that won a total of 28 games during the 1990s and had won only two postseason games in the GPAC era (2000-present). What Dupic would succeed at was selling potential recruits on looking not at the past, but the present and the future. Hired prior to the 2015 season, the former Buena Vista University assistant coach wanted to put his stamp on a winning culture.
What he did have to sell was a clean slate, a fresh start with a new coaching staff and the opportunity for immediate playing time. Especially in regards to pitching, Dupic was sending out an all-points bulletin.
One of many quality players to take the bait, North Iowa Area Community College transfer Jake Adams was part of the Iowa junior college migration to Seward. Said Adams, “I knew Coach Dupic when he was at BV and he’s a great guy. Knowing him and knowing what he’s about made it a lot easier to come here. He sold us on a vision, which is a tough thing for some of us. You get sold on a vision and you think about, ‘all right, let’s make it happen.’”
Adams helped bolster the outfield while a host of additional transfers were brought in to quickly improve the lineup. Such new arrivals included Casey Berg (North Iowa Area CC), the brother of Bryce, Jason Galeano (Illinois-Springfield) and Christian Montero (Iowa Central CC). They have been partly responsible for two of the greatest offensive seasons in program history over the past two years.
The pitching staff underwent a major overhaul, especially between the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Dupic and his staff hit it big on the recruiting trail, landing rookie hurlers Wade Council, Jake Fosgett, Nick Little, Jason Munsch and Desmond Pineda. Each of them would play a considerable role in the GPAC championship season that came together this spring.
Recalls Dupic, “We didn’t have enough pitching. At first we joked that if you have a pulse and you can throw, we want to recruit you. We needed to get absolutely and positively as many arms as we could. I’ve always detested walking into a baseball game feeling like I’m trying to survive it.”
The freshman group of pitchers vastly exceeded Dupic’s expectations. Dupic trusted them so much that they started many of the season’s most significant games. Little got the ball for the season opener at Bethany College. Council threw a shutout at Dakota Wesleyan that clinched at least a share of the conference title. Munsch then got the nod for the team’s first-ever game at the national tournament.
What impressed the coaches was how graciously the upperclassmen welcomed the freshmen. Egos were tossed aside in favor of whatever best served the greater good.
“In the two years that I’ve been here you can see the shift in culture,” Bryce Berg said. “We’ve been able to find good people that are invested in the program and invested in one another. We had a group of guys that really got along with each other and were excited to be around each other. Some places you go you see a divide between the seniors and freshmen. Our seniors did a really good job of welcoming those guys and encouraging them to take on bigger roles.”
As one of the team’s most high profile players, Casey Berg had the ability to be a positive or negative influence in the dugout. More important than his production at the top of the lineup, Casey Berg symbolized a changing culture. He bought in because he believed in the vision. “(Coach Dupic) just convinced me (to come). He’s a great guy and a great coach. I trusted him. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Rick Dupic, the father of Ryan, slammed the brakes mid-sentence of a phone conversation. The emotions are still pretty raw. Rick lived in Seward throughout the baseball season, serving as an assistant coach and a virtual personal assistant for his son. Rick knows as well as anyone the struggles that Ryan has endured. Baseball provided an avenue for escape, but there was no way to truly get away from the illness.
“He was able to coach and really concentrate on something he loves,” Rick said. “That was a really big thing. On second thought, it was a real strain for him. There were times during the season and games that he was really, really hurting – and it was tough to watch that as a father.”
There were obvious visual examples of the toll that cancer took on Ryan throughout the season. He lost an incredible amount of weight and there were times when you could see the burden in his eyes and in his face. Six-and-a-half weeks of driving back-and-forth with his father from Omaha for radiation will do that to you.
In late March, Casey Berg spoke candidly about the situation from the perspective of the players. Said Casey, “It’s hard to even talk to him because it just looks like it’s painful to talk to him. It’s rough. It’s been kind of emotional for everybody. It really affects us when he’s not there. Our team this year has a good culture that can handle that. We have a great group of seniors that can lead the team when he’s not there. It’s been tough for sure.”
By season’s end, many people were aware of the fact that Ryan had cancer. What some may not have known was that his newborn son faced hardships of his own. As Ryan explains it, the shape of young Cole’s head became abnormally enlarged to the point he needed surgery. Think of the psyche of Ryan’s wife Abby at the time. On one hand, Ryan’s energy is being sapped by radiation treatments. On the other, little Cole is in need of a type of surgery that cannot be performed just anywhere.
“It’s something you get very nervous about,” Ryan said. “We sought out some options. My wife really took the lead on it. We ended up taking him down to Texas for a surgery to be able to get his head shaped the correct way. He has to wear a helmet now. That was a very busy time for us. Thankfully, my wife’s parents were able to go down with her and support her during that time. I couldn’t travel because I had radiation. He’s doing very well now and he’s a real joy for us.”
The players were constantly thinking and praying about their coach. It seemed that each win down the stretch produced more emotion and carried a greater sense of purpose as being something more than just another victory.
Finding joy and establishing some sense of normalcy were ways that Ryan, his family, his coaching staff and his players bonded through “the struggle.” Ryan already had the respect of his team, but that respect grew tenfold throughout a magical 2017 ride.
“It’s awesome the way he’s led this team in spite of what he’s been experiencing,” Josh Prater said. “Our team has come together and has bonded. How we’ve handled ourselves, I think, has been an incredible story. It’s something I’ll carry with me the rest of my life. It’s something that has made the experience all the richer considering his condition.”
Cancer has made Ryan Dupic thankful. Seriously. He’s actually spent time throughout this process worrying about not being able to thank certain people enough. When the season ended and it was time for father Rick and mother Carol to head back home to northwest Iowa, Ryan felt a sense of guilt. How do I possibly express my thanks for what they have sacrificed for me?
Says Ryan, “It’s amazing how people can do things for you, but they don’t really see it as a big deal because they love you. That’s really special.”
Rick doesn’t believe his son should feel any guilt at all. Rick up and moved to Seward, cared for Ryan and helped coach the Bulldogs. “It was a full-time job, but it was a job I was ready to accept because that’s who we are in our family,” Rick said. “We help each other.”
The thanks go on and on. Ryan calls the support of wife Abby “amazing.” As the GPAC coach of the year, Ryan refers to the coaching accolade as a “staff award.” One of the unsung heroes of this whole season was Bryce Berg, who at 24 years of age, willingly took on a much advanced role within the program. There were times when Bryce neglected his own wife, Nicole, to serve Ryan, the program and the players. Says Dupic, “I don’t think enough can be said about what he did. There’s no way to say the right words about the role he’s had in this program. And I don’t think I could say enough about his wife Nicole.”
Ryan’s thankfulness extends to Concordia administrators and the university as a whole. Ryan won’t forget how Associate Athletic Director Angela Muller accompanied him on a flight to Tucson so he wouldn’t miss the team’s games that weekend. Ryan finds himself at a place that will jump through hoops – whatever it takes to support him.
Thinking back to the summer of 2014, Ryan had not been actively seeking to leave Buena Vista. Concordia Director of Athletics Devin Smith pursued Ryan, who was pushed by his wife to at least consider the opportunity. There were warm and fuzzies that resulted from a visit and on-campus interview. Said Ryan, “I just felt like this was a place where you could win and there were a lot of good people here.”
How soon would the winning come? Ryan never made any promises. At some point, the 2017 team had to prove it could win games against quality programs if it was to accomplish the types of goals it had in mind. Those goals were considerable. A four-year senior who stuck it out through thick and thin, catcher Ryan Fesmire made it clear before the season began. Said Fesmire back in February, “Honestly, I think if you ask anybody on the team – if we finish third in the GPAC this year, we would be disappointed. We honestly believe that we can go and win GPAC.”
Concordia proved a lot by beating Jamestown in Tucson (then again at the national tournament) and got hot, going on a stretch during which it won 22 of 28 games against conference opponents. Based on talent, league coaches pegged the Bulldogs to place third in the GPAC. What the 2017 team had were positive qualities beyond measure.
Says Rick Dupic, “All these people are working together not just for the best for Ryan, but for the program. It goes to show that when you have this many people working together on a common goal, anything is possible. The one thing I’ll take away from this season is the incredible amount of relationships that I encountered with the parents and administration and the coaches and players.”
When the season finally ended at the national tournament, Ryan was once again thankful. “For our guys to stay patient and continue to pursue their goals here is something I’ll be forever thankful for.”
The road ahead
Trust in God, in family and in his players has allowed Ryan Dupic to take cancer on with ferocity. At the national tournament, Ryan, several weeks removed from radiation and nourished by a feeding tube, showed renewed energy. He even came sprinting out of the dugout to discuss a call with the home plate umpire.
Ryan has become comfortable speaking about his situation and the way he talks makes you believe he’s turned a corner and that a normal life is waiting for him just around that corner.
“At this point in time, the next challenge for me is to learn to eat and drink again on my own through my mouth. I haven’t been able to get to that point yet,” Dupic said shortly after the season ended. “I lost a ton of weight and all my food goes through my feeding tube now. Learning how to eat again and being able to speak a little bit better – maybe through some speech therapy – are the next steps. I can’t taste anything yet. That will hopefully be another phase that will come back. It seems like I’m in good shape in terms of moving forward and being healthy. I’m very blessed and thankful for that. It’s just a matter of trying to get that normal lifestyle back.”
Days after the season ended, Ryan had already returned to the office. Of course he’s taking care of himself, but he won’t permit recruiting to get away from him. He’s ready for the next hurdle and the next adventure with his 2018 team. God willing, the 2017-18 Bulldogs will get more of Ryan’s care and attention.
Seniors like Casey Berg left the program in better shape than they found it. Now they’re predicting that the best is yet to come.
Says Casey, “It’s been a really fun ride. It’s been really cool to see how the culture has changed so much since I’ve gotten here. The culture change from my sophomore year to now is incredible and it’s just going to keep growing. What Coach Dupic’s doing is fantastic and it’s just going to get way better. It was a great year and the years to come are going to be even better.”
For now, the 2017 team has ownership of a new standard by which future Concordia baseball teams will be measured. A GPAC championship season was made possible by the courage and toughness of a head coach that refused to take pity or to make excuses. For so many reasons, the 2017 Concordia baseball team has reserved a special place in Ryan’s heart.