Nov 25, 2023

Defender athletics claim trophy and much more

Last May, Defender athletics was named the Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC) All-Sports Trophy champion for the 2022-23 academic year. It was the first time in institutional history that Dordt took home the All-Sports Trophy.

Last May, Defender athletics was named the Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC) All-Sports Trophy champion for the 2022-23 academic year. It was the first time in institutional history that Dordt took home the All-Sports Trophy.

The GPAC All-Sports standings are compiled by taking where each of the athletic teams placed during the season divided by the total points earned in the conference. And the 2022-23 Defenders placed well; they claimed conference championships in men’s cross country (who went on to win NAIA nationals), women’s cross country, women’s basketball, men’s basketball, men’s indoor track & field, and men’s outdoor track & field. Dordt also had 12 teams in the top four of the GPAC standings.

Five Dordt coaches were named GPAC Coach of the Year. Women’s Basketball Coach Bill Harmsen, Dance Coach Mel Knobloch ('09), and former Men’s Soccer Coach Ryan Gresse took home one honor each, while Women’s Cross Country and Men’s Cross Country Coach Nate Wolf and Men’s Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field Coach Craig Heynen ('90) each claimed two Coach of the Year awards.

Going into the final weekend of the season, Defender athletics knew that there was a good chance they’d win the All-Sports Trophy. So, it was gratifying when the Athletics Office received the final call.

“There were many events that led to this moment. It felt like the culmination of three or four years of work, where we could tell momentum was building. This year, everything lined up and hit just right,” says Director of Sports Information Mike Byker ('92).

But, as Athletic Director Ross Douma says, “Defenders don’t bow to trophies.” It was exciting to receive the All-Sports Trophy, but Defender athletics is about more than winning.

Defenders take a different approach than one might expect in athletics: a holistic one that seeks to help student-athletes advance spiritually, academically, and athletically. It’s an approach that’s embodied in the Defender Way.

What, exactly, is the Defender Way? How has it transformed Defender athletics in such a way that it’s created a unique ethos on the field, in the classroom, and in the pews?

The Defender Way includes four principles:

  • We are committed to the Great Commission and the cultural mandate.
  • We are committed to equipping student-athletes to be servant leaders.
  • We are committed to the academic development of all student-athletes.
  • We are committed to the pursuit of championships.

These four points summarize Defender athletics’ commitment and approach to competitive athletics. It is based on Romans 2:1: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your true and proper worship.”

Men’s and Women’s Cross-Country Coach Nate Wolf helped with creating the Defender Way. He remembers emphasizing “pursuit” in “the pursuit of championships.”

“We knew we wanted championships to be part of the Defender Way, but winning championships is such a finite thing. There’s only so many of us who will get an opportunity to win. One of the merits of the Defender Way is that it shows that Defenders want to grow: if we achieve a 3.0 team grade point average (GPA), what about working toward a 3.2 team GPA? If we get a conference championship, how about a national championship? We’re pursuing something that’s more fulfilling than winning; the pursuit is where the value is.”

When it comes to being “committed to the academic development of all student-athletes,” athletes are just as dedicated to working hard in the classroom as they are on the field. Take, for example, Dordt athletes’ GPAs and their choice of major: looking at the data, Registrar Jim Bos ('85) can’t tell an athlete from a non-athlete.

“For the incoming freshman class for the fall 2023 semester, the average high school GPA for non-athletes was 3.70, whereas the average high school GPA for the incoming freshman class of athletes was 3.72,” he says. “There’s no statistical difference between a Dordt athlete and a non-athlete, which is fascinating.”

That’s partly because Dordt athletic coaches seek to recruit “right-fit” students, says Women’s Basketball Coach Bill Harmsen. “We want great students who will contribute to the broader campus community while also playing basketball,” he says. “When I recruit students, I make it clear how rigorous academics are here. I try to recruit students with excellent GPAs and academic drive, so that when students come to Dordt, they don’t say, ‘Man, I actually do have to study.’”

This is true of other sports, including cross country.

“Cross country runners tend to like extremes, especially since they need the discipline to run mile after mile after mile, often alone,” Wolf says. “That type of student is usually attracted to academic rigor as well because of the discipline and drive needed to succeed, so I think an institution like Dordt resonates with them.”

The women’s and men’s cross country team GPAs for the 2022-23 academic year back up Wolf’s statement. Women’s cross country runners achieved a cumulative GPA of 3.91, and the men’s cross country runners were at a 3.54 GPA – their highest annual GPA since Defender athletics began tracking GPA in 2007.

And it’s not just the cross country athletes that had high GPAs. Each of the varsity teams’ GPAs were over 3.0, which means that all teams achieved NAIA Scholar status. The athletic department had a total varsity GPA of 3.52, which is impressive.

This academic success is intentional; faculty and coaches work together to make sure student-athletes prioritize their academics and athletic endeavors well.

“There’s a saying on campus that class activities trump practice, but faculty should make accommodations for games,” explains Bos. “We’ve tried to make our schedule as athlete friendly as possible. We’ve pushed for the Tuesday / Thursday lab schedule to be done by 3:15 p.m., rather than at 5 p.m., so that music and athletics can have those two afternoons for practices. I won’t say it’s perfect, but there is a good coexistence.”

Dordt athletes are also known for choosing difficult majors. The Defender football team is a prime example; during the 2022-23 academic year, approximately 20 percent of Dordt’s football players chose to study engineering. Others majored in nursing, accounting, agriculture, finance, entrepreneurship, construction management, biology: public health, computer science, and more.

Unlike other colleges and universities where it’s common for athletes to take an extra year or two to complete their degrees, the norm for most Dordt athletes – including those studying engineering, nursing, and other academically rigorous majors – is to graduate within four years.

“We help student-athletes have a four-year path to graduation if they want it,” says Bos. “We work with them so that they can take Core Program classes in the summer. We adjust their course loads so that they might have more courses one semester and a lighter load the next, depending on their athletic schedule. Some students may decide to spread their studies out over four and a half years or five years, perhaps if they have another year of eligibility to play. But if they want to graduate in four years, we can, for the most part, help them make that happen.”

And for those students who struggle academically, athletic coaches have a huge impact. Bos sits on the student success team, which meets on a weekly basis to discuss how best to assist students who are struggling academically.

“When a struggling student is an athlete, we reach out to the coach. And when we do that, we get results. Our coaches have such strong relationships with their athletes. Coaches may not even know how good they are as academic coaches; they are simply holding their students accountable, which can have huge results,” says Bos.

The Defender Way highlights Dordt commitment to “equipping student-athletes to be servant leaders.” Again, this comes down to finding the “right fit” students, says Harmsen.

“When I go on recruiting trips, I pay attention to how students treat their fellow teammates as well as their coaches and officials and how they interact with their parents,” says Harmsen. “How they treat others matters. I want to see their love for Christ, their love for their teammates, and their love for the program.”

Once students are on campus, it’s crucial to establish a strong team culture, says Dance Coach Mel Knobloch. “We worked hard to have a team climate where we uplift one another, not compete against each other. We started off with team devotions every week, which was awesome. That helped us to have a tight-knit family feel the entire season.”

The Defender Way highlights how Dordt athletes are “committed to the Great Commission and the cultural mandate.” To Byker, that partly means looking at what impact these student-athletes will have years after they’ve left Dordt’s campus.

“The wins and losses will fade away, but what students do after they graduate matters,” he says. “When a basketball player becomes a Christian school administrator or a lawyer, or a baseball player is devoted to his family, or a volleyball player is committed to her church community, that’s when I know our athletic program is a success. It’s what our players do 10 years from now that defines success to me. Not that our players go all-conference or make the national tournament; that’s temporary. Success is much more than that.”

Sarah Moss ('10)

A picture of campus behind yellow prairie flowers