A destination job: meet coach Ryan Van Zelst

By Jason Fridge
October 26, 2023

Current Cabrini men's basketball players with assistant coach Kevin Murray (far left) and new head coach Ryan Van Zelst (far right) at Top Golf in King of Prussia. All are smiling and enjoying their final year together.
Van Zelst (far right) and players at a team trip to Top Golf. As coach, he hopes his players enjoy the little moments throughout the year that come with being a college athlete. Photo via Cabrini men's basketball Instagram

In April, Ryan Van Zelst received an offer to be the seventh head coach of the Cabrini men’s basketball team. He jumped at the opportunity to lead a program full of tradition. Six months later, the circumstances of his tenure may have changed, but his commitment to the team is stronger than ever.

Van Zelst brings to Cabrini a decade of coaching experience throughout Pennsylvania. He most recently spent a year as the head coach at Penn State-Abington, where he led the team to a program record 18 wins and their first conference championship berth.

Ryan Van Zelst was named Cabrini’s seventh men’s basketball head coach on April 26, 2023. He’s been tasked with navigating a new environment as well as the school’s closure. Graphic via Cabrini Athletics.

In 2017, while as an assistant at the University of Scranton, Van Zelst was named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) 30-under-30 list. That recognizes up-and-coming coaches in men’s college basketball.

His previous experience, especially at Abington, allowed him to understand what it takes to run successful programs.

“I got to learn under a great group of guys who let me coach them,” said Van Zelst. “They really gave me hands on experience and let me know how I like to do things. They also showed me what it takes to allow me to coach them. We were able to do some great things because they trusted me.”

Van Zelst hopes he can use these skills to send off the Cabrini men’s basketball program in style this winter.

Managing a new team through crisis

It’s not every day a coach takes over a program knowing it will only be for the year. When Van Zelst first heard the news about Cabrini closing in June, one emotion stood out.

Van Zelst addressing the team during their first organized practice in September. The Cavaliers have a roster full of new and returning players who hope to end the program on a high note. Photo via Cabrini men’s basketball Instagram

“I just felt so sad,” said Van Zelst. “Not even sad for me, because I know how special this place is and how special the program is.”

Van Zelst immediately scheduled a meeting to get on the same page with his team through these challenging times. He maintained that he was committed to the program for the year and would support the players with whatever decision they made.

“I made a commitment to this team when I took the job,” said Van Zelst. “We put the decision on them and told them if they wanted to stay, myself and the coaching staff was coming back and we would give them everything we got.”

After allowing the players a few weeks to weigh their options, within no time Van Zelst had a fully committed roster that would be on board for the last ride. He’s used the circumstances as motivation to help the team see how special of a year this can be.

“We have a chance to leave a legacy,” Van Zelst told the team. “Maybe it won’t be everlasting because the names might change, but when comparing basketball history, you will be the last team and it’s up to you how you want to go out.”

Looking forward to the final year

As the calendar turned to October, the team returned to the court for it’s first few practices. Both the players and coaching staff have had to adjust to some of the changes within the program, and the entire team is helping to make the transition seamless. With the team making it through the first few weeks of preseason, the growing pains are starting to ease and chemistry is building.

“For us with the days that we’ve been allowed to have, it’s really alleviated some of the anxiety with the younger guys,” said Van Zelst. “The new guys see how I interact on the floor, and it’s really brought comfortability to the program in a year where we need it with everything being new.”

“I’m excited for the new beginnings and change,” said senior forward Isaac Brady. Brady is one of the team’s captains and has been enjoying the first portion of Van Zelst’s tenure. “He embraced me right away, telling me he’s already viewed film of my game and likes what I bring to the table. I had an amazing first impression with him and am excited to see where we can go.”

For Van Zelst, while he awaits the rush of taking the court for game day, there’s something else he is excited to experience this year.

“I’m most looking forward to the little stuff,” said Van Zelst. “I love when the guys are having fun before practice, dancing when we’re stretching, and just enjoying each other’s company. Little stuff to me is everything. I’m competitive, I want to win everything, but at the end of the day it’s about experience and our job as coaches is to provide the best possible experience for each student athlete.”

The Cavaliers will tip off the 2023-2024 season in November, hosting Elizabethtown College for the home opener on November 8. The team will have a tough non-conference schedule that they hope will challenge the group and give them confidence about playing in big games. Cabrini has not won a conference championship since the 2017-18 season, when the school competed in the Colonial States Athletic Conference. This group is determined to end the program on a high note.

Van Zelst affirmed that although it won’t be an ideal situation, he’s going to take advantage of this year and make the most out of the opportunity.

“You make decisions in life and sometimes they go a certain way that’s unexpected,” said Van Zelst. “There’s always something good that comes out of situations like this that you might not see in the moment. I know that this is going to make me a better coach, mentor, and leader. Cabrini is a destination job, and I would’ve taken this job 100 times out of 100.”

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Jason Fridge

I am a junior Digital Communication/Social Media major with a Sports Communication minor. I grew up in Lynnwood, WA north of Seattle. Involved on campus at Cabrini as a Student Ambassador, SAAC (Student Athlete Advisory Committee) executive board member, play-by-play broadcaster for Cabrini athletics, and a player on the Cabrini lacrosse team. Aspire to go into sports broadcasting and dream job would be working for a sports franchise/media company either as on-air talent or behind the scenes media member. In my free time I enjoy exercising and can usually be found walking around Wayne listening to a good podcast about sports or history!

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