Coach’s culture fosters maturity, championship

By Jake Tiger

Four months removed from a gutsy championship victory over Iona, Rider men’s soccer filed into another weekly March meeting, this time greeted by a slideshow with an image of an alluring mansion – fountains, columns and all.

“How many of you guys want to buy this?” asked Head Coach Chad Duernberger, prompting most of the team to put up a hand. “How many of you guys know the process to buy this?” 

Each hand trickled down.

The presentation, aptly titled “How to Buy a House,” was one of five offseason meetings in a series Duernberger dubbed “Culture Fridays,” each session teaching the burgeoning adults a lesson about both soccer and maturity.

Duernberger’s team-building philosophy is the foundation of what players described as a “brotherhood,” as the coach believes culture is the key to constructing fearsome teams, and successful individuals that continue to win long after they leave Rider.

“I feel like I failed them if it’s just soccer,” said Duernberger. “It’s not a four-year decision; it’s a 40-year decision if you’re going to come play for me, because I want to set you up for life.”

‘He’s onto something’

Rider announced Duernberger as men’s soccer’s next head coach in January 2023 following the retirement of Rider’s former head coach, Charlie Inverso, who led the Broncs to three Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships during his 36-year stint.

In Inverso’s final season, Rider finished 3-8-6 and it appeared that Duernberger was inheriting a team tumbling toward a rebuild, but Duernberger, a perennial winner, lifted the Broncs to a 12-4-4 en route to a gritty victory in the MAAC championship in his first season. 

Duernberger’s coaching journey began in 2008 – two years after he graduated from college – when he landed his first head coaching job at his Division II alma mater, the University of Charleston. 

He took over a squad coming off a dismal 0-17 season; just two seasons later,  Duernberger’s Golden Eagles were 19-4-0 with a perfect record in conference play.

When Duernberger was an assistant coach at Penn State in 2014, he helped the Nittany Lions to a 10-0-1 start, the best in program history.

“Coach Chad’s philosophy is something that should be studied,” said sophomore midfielder Luke Kirilenko. “He’s onto something.”

Duernberger has always found ways to win, and he does so by being both a coach and mentor to his players, as he believes a team’s environment is the difference-maker. 

“From my experience at the Division I level, everybody’s good, every team is talented,” said Duernberger. “The biggest difference is who’s playing together, who has the culture.”

‘Our culture was our advantage’

Duernberger wants his guys to win at everything, be it on the pitch or in the housing market.

Since he took over for Inverso, Duernberger has treated his new squad to a number of unique bonding activities, including mini golf, bowling and a pool party at the home Duernberger purchased after taking the job at Rider (and after teaching himself how to buy a house).

He was sure to point out that he crushed everybody at mini golf.

“Those are the little things that I feel help grow the culture of brotherhood,” said Duernberger. “They go a long way with these guys connecting and being together … and being able to win a MAAC championship.”

The other four “Culture Fridays” explored ways the team could build healthy habits, be a better teammate and overcome adversity. 

Junior midfielder Kevin Peprah recalled a moment from one “Culture Friday” where Duernberger compared the team to a pit crew changing the tire on a Formula One car, dozens of people working together with airtight unity.

“It’s just been a big emphasis on brotherhood and how close we are together as a group,” said Peprah. “The lessons and what we gain from it, it goes deeper than just soccer. You can apply it to life itself.”

Duernberger said the final “Culture Friday” was particularly impactful on the team, as it asked them to consider everything soccer had given them.

The team came together as they all acknowledged how much the game had afforded them, whether it be lifelong friends, an education overseas or a coveted MAAC championship.

Kirilenko said, “We were a much tighter group than a lot of the teams that we were playing. … Our culture was our advantage.”

Up 2-1 on top-seeded Iona with 16 seconds left in the MAAC final on Nov. 9, Rider sophomore goalkeeper Adam Salama prepped for perhaps the most important penalty kick of his life, as a save would make his Broncs champions after completely missing the postseason a year prior.

The opposing Gael fired a perfectly placed shot toward the bottom-right corner of the goal, but with outstretched arms, a diving Salama deflected the ball up and over the goal, sending the ball out of bounds as time expired.

“I had full confidence in Adam,” said Duernberger after the match. “I knew he’d be up for it.”

As the Iona players collapsed onto the turf, fingers gripping their hair in despair, Duernberger’s brothers piled on Salama in a victorious, screeching heap of cranberry. 

Teams can’t get much tighter than that.

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