Century soccer received a significant blow at the end of January when Nate Ulness resigned as head coach of the boys and girls programs.
Ulness, who compiled a record of 117-26-21 and four state championships during five years and nine combined seasons with the two Patriots programs, accepted an opportunity to become the first women’s soccer coach at Gillette College in Wyoming.
“This is something I’ve been striving to do," he said. "Now that I have the chance, it’s about building the best program I can.”
His knowledge and tactical wizardry will surely be difficult to replace, but it is his unique style that will surely lead the Pronghorns to success in his new position and be the most difficult void for Century soccer to fill.
“My style is kind of just an adaptation from the coaches I’ve learned from,” Ulness said. “I’ve been blessed with some phenomenal athletes in Bismarck and just great kids and parents overall. More of the credit goes to the kids.
“I wouldn’t say I was the mastermind behind everything; it’s about finding kids that fit that same mold and keep making me look good.”
There is never a simple explanation as to why one coach is more successful than another. The evidence visible on game film can be observed and broken down, but determining value in the intangible aspects of coaching is nearly impossible.
“You need to be able to like your coach,” said Tiffany Ohlhauser, who played for Ulness both at Century and the University of Mary. “Having fun and not being so serious all the time. He always made it fun, and he made everyone feel like, I don’t know, he just made it fun and yet it was also very serious.
“It worked for so many years with him because he always made it enjoyable, even when it was a hard practice or something like that.”
Knowledge and innovation alone are not enough to garner consistent success at any level; coaches must also find a way to get their players to buy into their message and program as a whole. This can often be extremely difficult to accomplish as a result of being forced to rotate new players in on an annual basis, but it appeared to come naturally for Ulness during his time at Century.
“He is innocently true and pure to his kids. I think he gets his sense of success based on smiles,” said Century assistant coach Tim Green, who coached Ulness when he was a teenager. “These kids trust him and they believe in him, so I think his passion flows into their want to. You can’t coach 22 girls the same way, but at the same time, he does it. It’s a personality thing to some degree, his quirkiness and his ability to understand the moment.
“He’s in tune with how his kids are doing, and because he’s very soccer smart, he’s able to put things together that help the kids foster some of that development.”
Ulness’ soccer savvy undeniably played a significant role in, for example, Century’s most recent state championship victory over Fargo Davies this past girls season, but it was his commitment to his players and passionate personality that prepared his teams to thrive during big games.
“His connection with his players,” said Lauren Fleming, a forward at Wayne State who Ulness began coaching in seventh grade. “I don’t think he ever coached anybody he didn’t know the name of. He makes everything very personal. It was good for us because we trust with him. And then his work ethic. He is always willing to be at practice early or stay late.”
Through the many ups and downs of each individual season, Ulness always stayed true to his players and his brand. Even in defeat, he always found a way to keep his players motivated and emotionally tied to the clearly-established goals and expectations of his program.
“He wouldn’t let us put our heads down,” Ohlhauser said. He always boosted us up. He’d come into the locker room and make sure we knew that we could do better. That just made us want to do 100 times better the next game.”
Ulness’ five-year run of state championships, West Region titles and double-digit win seasons would be difficult for almost any coach to emulate. But the winning culture he created and the identity he embedded within the Patriots’ program through his relentless commitment to success and unique brand that found balance between having fun and competing is what makes his departure a loss for Century and the Bismarck soccer community as a whole.
“I truly think he has the ability to get a little bit extra from his teams,” Green said. “When you get more out of your team than what they are on paper, that’s a successful season even if you don’t win the state tournament. Nate has that ability, and that is going to be the biggest void to fill because it’s going to take several people.
“It’s going to be challenging for a new coach. That’s a tough act to follow.”