Bolstered by a tenacious defense, the Michigan women’s soccer team recently completed one of the most successful seasons in its history. In head coach Greg Ryan’s fifth year at the helm of the program, the Wolverines have fully rebounded from years of mediocrity to re-establish themselves as a prominent figure on the national stage. Though Ryan has received much of the praise for the turnaround, he is quick to identify Dean Duerst — his longtime friend and co-worker — as one of the keys to the resurgence.

When Ryan accepted the job at Michigan in 2008, Duerst joined him in Ann Arbor. Hired to reproduce the success of longtime coach Debbie Rademacher, Duerst’s first two seasons in Ann Arbor weren’t pretty. The Wolverines won just 10 games combined in 2008-2009 and finished in the cellar of the Big Ten both years. But in 2010, Michigan welcomed a new era of Wolverine soccer when it hosted the inaugural game at the brand-new U-M Soccer Complex. That season, Duerst agreed to focus on coaching the defense despite never having done so in the past. The risky maneuver paid off, as Michigan finished in the top half of the conference and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years.

“What has evolved is that (Ryan and I) help each other,” Duerst said. “When we need to focus on something. … Greg feels very comfortable with me in the back. For me, in terms of coaching, it’s been really fun in that respect. Through the years it’s really been quite a good transition.”

After an injury-riddled 2011 campaign, Duerst’s back line improved to near-perfection in 2012. During a six-game stretch that spanned more than 632 minutes in the middle of the year, the Wolverines didn’t allow a single tally. In total, the defense gave up just 17 goals all season and posted 13 shutouts — both program bests — despite opening the season without star junior defender Shelina Zadorsky.

“With Shelina (Zadorsky) being out a few games, it really didn’t affect us in terms of that early development,” Duerst said. “The previous couple of years that we didn’t have that consistency of personnel.”

Riding their stout defense, the Wolverines finished this season third in the Big Ten and No. 19 nationally. Against elite competition, the back line performed its best; Michigan held No. 2 Penn State to just two goals in as many contest. But after coming a penalty kick short of earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, Duerst and Ryan are left to reflect on the enormous success of the 2012 campaign and find ways to improve before next fall.

“I was just thrilled with the season,” Ryan said. “Our team achieved well beyond the goals they had set for themselves. The girls were happy, they had great chemistry (and) they really feel like a family. For all of those reasons it was just a fantastic year.”

Ryan believes the Wolverines’ achievements last season can be matched next year. After all, the team graduates only three seniors. More importantly, he realizes that Duerst is one of the most overqualified assistant coaches in the country. And the two share a long history that has transformed their working relationship into one of friendship.

Raised in a small community just outside of Madison, Wis., Duerst grew up overshadowed by world-caliber athletes. Mark Johnson, the hockey star who scored twice to propel the United States over Russia in the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, went to Madison Memorial and the University of Wisconsin, Duerst’s high school and college. Understandably, Duerst didn’t receive as much attention when he lettered in 1982 and 1983 and received regional awards two years in a row. But he then became the first Madison-area soccer player to sign a professional contract. Duerst wasn’t making miracles, but he was making a name for himself.

Then, he received a phone call that changed the course of his career. It was Ryan, the German-American player and coach who was then Wisconsin’s women’s soccer coach.

“I get this strange phone call … and Greg invited me to work for him,” Duerst said. “And I said, ‘Sure, it sounds great.’ ”

Back at his alma mater, Duerst — affectionately known as “Dino” — assisted Ryan as they led the Badgers to Final Four appearances in 1988 and 1991. When Ryan left Wisconsin for Southern Methodist University in 1993, Duerst replaced him. Over the next 13 seasons, Duerst took Wisconsin to eight NCAA Tournament appearances and two conference tournament championships, passing his former colleague as the winningest coach in Badger history.

While Wisconsin’s continued success made Duerst well-known in the college soccer world, Ryan’s similar accomplishments at SMU and Colorado secured him an assistant coaching job with the US National Team in 2002. Five years later, after Ryan had been promoted to head coach, Duerst too joined the staff. A decade after they had parted ways in Madison, the two coaches were reunited at the national level.

“It was kind of nice,” Duerst said. “Ten years later I’m doing the same thing with Greg. We’re different coaching-type personalities, but I think that brings a good blend to the players. We each have wisdom in different ways.”

While Ryan guided the U.S. National Team to a third-place finish in the 2007 World Cup, Duerst led the Under-17 squad to a 9-1 record that same year. Though he posted only two losses at the helm of the National Team, Ryan was fired after facing criticism for benching goalkeeper Hope Solo in the semifinal of the tournament — most notably from Solo herself. When Ryan accepted the head coaching job at Michigan in early 2008, Duerst joined him. And Ryan couldn’t have been happier.

“I have so much confidence in him,” Ryan said. “You develop a friendship and you enjoy the process more. We don’t always think exactly the same but we always share ideas. If you look at our success this year, we didn’t concede very many goals. I directly attribute that to Dino’s work.

Duerst was also pleased with his unit’s work last season, but he knows the back line can improve. Ohio State exposed the Wolverines’ defense, scoring five goals in their two contests. Michigan State also exploited holes in the back line, though senior goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer managed to hold the Spartans to only one tally. Kopmeyer’s absence in 2013 will be a difficult adjustment for Duerst, but the rest of the Wolverines’ starting defense will return in its entirety.

“We can grow from it,” Duerst said. “We’re going to have a lot of competition for playing time, which is a good thing.”

Ryan and Duerst have spent years building solid programs and leading teams to success around the country. Recently, Duerst was recognized for his achievements both as a player and a coach when he was inducted into the Madison Soccer Hall of Fame. He says the honor takes him back to his roots.

“It brings back all the memories of starting this game,” he said. “The small, little village I grew up in … had some unbelievable athletes. Then it moved on to bigger and better things — University, playing in a national championship, and several different final fours. You start from a little community and it just grew, and (the induction) brought all of those memories back.”

Duerst remembers when his high school coach recommended he pursue coaching. More than 30 years later, Duerst is very grateful he did.

“It’s been a great run,” he said.

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