Never Playing It Safe

By Brian Jerzak

Ryan Duffy doesn’t believe in going half speed. The three-sport star for the South St. Paul Packers has his athletic and college path mapped out, and it doesn’t involve wrestling – in which he has advanced to the state tournament four times. It doesn’t involve playing quarterback, defensive back or wide receiver which he did for the state runner-up Packers’ football team. His future involves a scholarship to pitch for the Minnesota Gophers’ baseball team.

With a guaranteed scholarship to play for a program that just advanced to the Division I College World Series, it would be easy for Duffy to put aside wrestling and football and concentrate on his ticket to a free college education. Many people might even encourage the left-handed pitcher to put aside the cleats and singlet, play it safe and focus on baseball. People who would say that do not know Ryan Duffy. They don’t know Duffy doesn’t believe in playing it safe.

“I don’t want to let my teammates down,” Duffy said. “I have unfinished business in two sports where I was runner up. I plan to hang up everything and be on top when I am done. If I didn’t play, I would be letting my teammates down. That is not something I want to do as a player or as a friend. I couldn’t imagine giving up one of my sports when I still have an opportunity to play them right now, just because of my future.”

Ryan Duffy of South St. Paul

Ryan Duffy of South St. Paul controls Greg Kerkvleit of Simley in the 2016 170-pound Class AA State finals. Duffy lost 4-3. Photo by Mary Christen.

Duffy’s wrestling resume includes runner-up at the state tournament last season as a junior, a third-place finish as a sophomore and two other appearances at State in 8th and 9th grade.

“Ryan is an overachiever in everything he does,” Packers’ wrestling coach Don Nihart said. “He looks fairly athletic, but you would never guess by looking at him how truly athletic he is. He is so competitive at whatever it is he is doing – it is ridiculous.”

Duffy started wrestling by tagging along with his dad.

“My dad coached at Park, so I started wrestling when I was three at Park – Cottage Grove. I started out pretty good. I never really placed at State in the youth tournaments. I was always in the middle of the pack and would run into a few studs who will be wrestling in college soon. I was that kid that kept setting goals for himself.”

Duffy enjoyed the sport as a child but had a second motivating factor.

“I had a lot of friends in it, I loved the competition, and it was a great way to be with my dad. He was really busy with his job and with coaching in the winter, so it was a way for me to spend more time with him.”

Starting in fifth grade, Duffy also started wrestling freestyle and Greco. This past season he decided to stop wrestling freestyle and Greco to focus on folkstyle, football, and baseball.

“(Offseason wrestling) factors into football and baseball,” Duffy said. “It is the competition. I absolutely hate losing. I hate losing more than I like winning. I want to be the best at every sport I play. Whatever season I am in that is my favorite sport. They all go hand in hand with each other.”

The crossover benefits between football and wrestling are fairly obvious; wrestling and baseball were not as obvious – at least they weren’t to me.

“As a pitcher in baseball you have to have the mentality that you are the best out there – no one is going to hit you,” explained Duffy. “You have to go right after guys and have a bulldog mentality. That fits right in with wrestling. It is just you out there, and when you step on the mat, you have to know you are the best dude on that mat.”

“Then there is the mental side of the game,” Duffy continued. “Wrestling is the toughest mental sport – in my opinion. Baseball is such a mental game because things don’t always go your way. Your fundamentals need to be sharp in both sports. The sports go hand and hand.”

Duffy won 40 matches as a junior – 28 of them by fall.

“I like to ride kids, turn and pin them when I can. I like to build up a cushion (with back points).”

“He is confident. He has put in the time,” Nihart said. “He learns things and then he perfects them. He is efficient and smart. He can change how he wrestles. Ryan adjusts really well and figures out how to wrestle kids.”

He developed his top game and specifically his crab ride into a half nelson – in part – by watching another guy who liked to turn people.

“I go to as many Gophers’ matches as possible. I am a hard-core Gophers fan which is why I committed there. I saw a few kids doing it – specifically, Dylan Ness when he first started. I picked it up and started to work on it in the summers and camps. It just stuck. I developed a comfort with it and now it just kind of flows.”

Duffy feels the biggest area he needs to improve when on the mat is his defense on the feet.

“When I get tired my legs are the first thing to go. My legs get straight; my butt comes up, and my stance isn’t even really a stance anymore.”

With three sports, Duffy doesn’t have much downtime.

“Summer is where all my sports intersect. I wrestle once or twice a week. I just roll around on the mat and work on different stuff. I work on strength and speed stuff – mainly for football – but that goes hand in hand with all three sports. I try not to lift too much weight because it is still baseball season.”

His schedule stays just as busy in-season, usually fitting in at least some type of training for his sports that are not in season at the time. The exception is in the spring when he focuses on almost exclusively baseball.

It doesn’t seem like he has much time to be a kid, but Duffy – who uses four pitches, a fastball, curve, slider and a changeup – has learned to balance school, sports, family and social life.

“It is a sacrifice I make. It is great. It keeps me out of trouble. There is no time for me to do something stupid. Sometimes I don’t get as much sleep as I would like, but I feel great. I have enough down time to get my rest. I feel good every day.”

Just getting back and forth to all his practices takes the support of his family.

“I have to thank my dad for getting me to camps and everything. He helps me with the physical side. He will see things and show me things I can work on. My mom helps with the mental side of things. When I am down, she will pick me up. My family is committed. We change our eating habits during wrestling season. My whole family loses weight in the winter because we all change our diet. My sister is the wrestling manager, so we are all invested in wrestling in the winter. They are all there for me. I don’t know where I would be without them.”

“His parents found a way to convey to him at an early age the importance of doing the best you can at whatever you do,” said Nihart. “Academically and athletically they have always held the bar high for him.”

His family – and the tragic loss of a teammate are also reasons why he chose to attend Minnesota.

“One of my summer league teammates passed away in a car accident. From that point, I realized how much my family means to me and decided to stay close to home.”

With baseball offers from Minnesota, Bradly, Illinois, Xavier and West Point, Duffy shut wrestling recruiting down quickly. Even so, he still had interest from Navy, Air Force, Stanford, MSU-Moorhead, Stoudt, and Lacrosse.

Despite the constant threat of injury and the derailment of his college baseball career, Duffy does not shy away from competition.

“I could get injured anywhere. I could hurt my arm pitching,” Duffy – who expects to wrestle at 182 next season – said. “I could pull a muscle running the bases. I am aware enough of where I am at on the field, on the mat and on the diamond about where I am at physically. I know when to push things and when not to. I take injury prevention serious enough that I don’t worry about it. More often than not you get injured if you fear injury. I don’t think about it.”

The Gophers’ baseball staff has never wanted their recruit to slow down.

“They like it. They see how my time management is in high school with the grades I get,” Duffy told The Guillotine. “They have never said anything against it. It really hasn’t come up.”

Specializing in baseball – or any of his activities – has never come up for the junior. Doing so would have been the safe decision, but Ryan Duffy is not someone who plays anything safe.

“For kids who are looking to specialize in one sport, don’t do it. All your sports go hand in hand with each other. The more sports you play, the more your muscles will continue to develop. At a young age don’t feel the need to specialize. You never know who you are going to meet. I’ve met so many friends in all three sports. There is nothing like being out there competing. I just couldn’t imagine if I would have specialized at a young age where I would be right now and how much fun I would have missed out on.”

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