When it was announced on Aug. 8 that Ryan Strain would become the 12th baseball head coach in MSU Denver history, everything came full-circle for the Denver native.
For Strain, the roots run deeper than just growing up in the city and being a three-sport star at Cherry Creek High School. The Strains have had a presence in Denver as coaches since 1958. Joe Strain Sr. and Jr., Ryan’s grandfather and father, respectively, both led Denver area high school basketball teams to state championships. The elder became a city prep legend after serving for more than three decades and winning nearly 300 games before concluding his career after a one-year stint as MSU Denver’s leader. Joe Strain Jr. followed a career in MLB with a successful tenure at Cherry Creek High School on the basketball court and is now a scout for the San Francisco Giants. His other grandfather was also a high school coach, leading Thomas Jefferson High School’s football team. Now the baton is passed to Ryan.
“It’s exciting for me to come back and be home. I’ve been gone for a long time so this opportunity, when it came up, was a no-brainer,” Strain said.
In the first head coaching job of his career, Strain looks to build on both his family name and the experience he has gathered over his own travels. After graduating from high school, he played at North Carolina State University and then at University of Nevada before a two-year career in the minor leagues of the same San Francisco Giants organization that his father played for and would eventually become a scout for.
Once he left the Giants, he briefly played for the independent-league Rockford RiverHawks and got his coaching career underway.
Highlighted by his seven seasons of work at the Southern Illinois University, Strain built an extensive resume as a hitting and infield specialist. In 2008, Strain joined University of Northern Colorado as hitting and infield coach. He joined two other future MSU Denver head coaches in more modest roles: current volleyball head coach Jenny Glenn and first-year women’s soccer head coach Tracy Chao. During an office renovation, he wound up sharing an office with Chao, UNC’s first women’s soccer assistant coach.
“It was tiny to the point where if either of us rolled our chairs backwards, we would hit the other person in the back,” Chao said. “Ryan and I got immediately along. He’s an energetic, passionate guy.”
It was that energy and passion that drove Strain to reinvent SIU’s offense this past season and cement his name on the coaching map. At 5 feet 8 inches, he naturally didn’t have slugger power and emphasized his game on aggressiveness and applying pressure as a player, which translated to his coaching style. After stealing nine bases in 90 games professionally, he led the 2017 Salukis to 100 steals, 42 more than the next best team in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“Baserunning has kind of been a lost art,” Strain said. “That’s kind of my philosophy when I started putting some of this stuff together. Our team is very talented, but the other teams are talented, too. So, what can we do that another team might not be able to do or they don’t work at?”
At the professional level, stolen bases are at their lowest level since 1974, averaging only .52 per game in each of the last three seasons in MLB. This makes Strain’s approach of applying pressure on the base paths and forcing the other team’s hand an outlier amongst most high-level competition. The results show.
The environment of aggressiveness made Strain’s SIU team not only the most willing to swipe a bag in their conference, but also the most successful. In their 130 stolen base attempts, they were successful 76.9 percent of the time, the best success rate in the conference and well above its 73.6 percent average. This allowed the team, which held a batting average eight points lower than the MVC average, to produce runs at a middle-of-the-pack level.
This is a sharp change in direction for the Roadrunners, who were 27-for-39 in stolen base attempts last season, ranking second-to-last in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference in tries. This new strategy is a great opportunity for some of the team’s players, including speedy outfielder Aaron Germani.
“It helps excel my game, and it’ll help us win games, any time you can take that extra base,” Germani said.
The similarities between Strain’s game plan and his personality are beyond conspicuous. As a dynamic, industrious individual, he wants to inject that personality into his players and their skillset.
“The first thing I told those guys was, ‘It’s going to be energy.’ That’s who I am. I think the team feeds off what their head coach is like and what his style is. That’s going to be one of my things that I push for every day, because if we can do that, everything else is going to fall into place,” Strain said.
Strain’s unique approach gives him the opportunity to distinguish himself from his family’s legacy and expand it. In terms of Denver coaching, the Strain name is synonymous with hoops, but is branching outward in its third go around.
“When both your grandads were great coaches and your dad’s a great coach, in the state of Colorado, and you’re coaching here, there’s some expectations with that, so I’m excited,” Strain said.