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Building Iron Tigers: DWU's Hobbs making a mark

Dakota Wesleyan University strength and conditioning coach Kyle Hobbs, top left, watches the form as members of the football team workout on Wednesday at the DWU weight room in the Christen Family Athletic Center. (Matt Gade / Republic) 1 / 3
Dakota Wesleyan University strength and conditioning coach Kyle Hobbs, left, makes notes as members of the football team workout on Wednesday at the DWU weight room in the Christen Family Athletic Center. (Matt Gade / Republic) 2 / 3
Dakota Wesleyan University strength and conditioning coach Kyle Hobbs, center, walks up and down the weight room as members of the football team workout on Wednesday at the DWU weight room in the Christen Family Athletic Center. (Matt Gade / Republic) 3 / 3

The phrase "Iron Tigers" has a whole new meaning for athletes at Dakota Wesleyan University.

The two words are plastered on the door of DWU's weight room and on nearly every weight inside the Christen Family Athletic Center. And under the direction of Kyle Hobbs, every DWU athlete understands what it means to be an Iron Tiger.

The school's first strength and conditioning coach, who will start his fourth year in November, has helped all DWU athletes with both in season and offseason workout programs designed to improve performance and decrease injury risk.

The workouts are planned down to the second, with an emphasis on communication and knowledge so each athlete understands what he or she gets out of each workout. Alongside the implementation of a workouts, Hobbs helped the school completely remodeled its weight room in 2015 to better utilize space.

"When I got here, there wasn't anything established so it was about getting a culture set," said Hobbs, a native of Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. "There's a lot of misconceptions about what strength and conditioning is and how beneficial it is. Each team keeps getting bigger and bigger. It's been a big change since I've been here, but it's been a positive one. The kids enjoy coming here. They enjoy working and they're seeing the benefits."

Evidence of Hobbs' impact can be seen this summer. This year, close to 100 athletes (65-70 football players, 15-20 men's basketball players and 10-15 women's basketball players) are staying in Mitchell and working out in Hobbs' programs at least three times a week. It's a large improvement from Hobbs' first summer, where he saw less than 20 athletes stick around for summer workouts. Last year, Hobbs' estimated there were maybe 50 to 60 athletes that participated in his summer workouts.

"When you have 65 to 70 guys here over the summer, I think that's a big testament to him," DWU football head coach Ross Cimpl said. "They know how valuable the time with him is and that they're going to see positive results. Working out during the summer for an 18- to 22-year old kid isn't probably the first thing on their list. But players see results, and if they see themselves getting better, faster, stronger, they're going to want to continue to do that."

Hobbs' strength and conditioning program may have had its biggest impact on the success for both DWU basketball teams and the football team. Cimpl, men's basketball head coach Matt Wilber and women's basketball head coach Jason Christensen each praised Hobbs for helping improve their respective teams. The past two seasons, both Tiger basketball teams have reached the national tournament and the football team has posted six consecutive winning seasons, narrowly missing out on the playoffs the past two season.

"He's changed the whole dynamic of our team and how we train in a positive way," Cimpl said about Hobbs' and his program. "I can't express how much of an impact he's made on our team. Our last senior class that won (a school record) 32 games in four years wouldn't have happened without Kyle Hobbs and what he does."

For Christensen, Hobbs' contributions have been easy to see.

"Our kids are faster, stronger and he's been instrumental in that," Christensen said. "When he came on board, I could see our kids endurance at the end of games. You could just tell our kids didn't look as tired. It's been a huge benefit."

Building a culture

Brady Bonte remembers, with great certainty, he didn't choose to play football for DWU because of the weight room.

The former standout linebacker acknowledged the school didn't have much to offer for muscle building or offseason training when he stepped on campus as a freshman in 2012. Fast forward to 2017 and Bonte is amazed at how much things have changed for all Tiger athletes.

And the former second team All-American gives all the credit to Hobbs.

"You couldn't fit a team in here and you couldn't do much with it," Bonte said about the DWU weight room. "I wasn't even a big advocate for being in (the weight room) a ton until coach Hobbs started dropping knowledge on us."

Bonte said he had a solid freshman season but after Hobbs showed up and worked out with him, his performance rose. It showed on the field as he was named an honorable mention All-American as a sophomore.

"I give 50 percent of the credit right there to coach Hobbs," said Bonte, who is now working as Hobbs' graduate assistant. "The stuff that this place has done for me is a testament to what it can do for all of our athletes."

Hobbs' hiring was part of DWU's partnership with Avera and DWU Athletic Director Jon Hart said the school saw a need for a strength and conditioning coach to supplement the current coaches and help prevent the same injuries from occurring.

"It's been extremely transformational," Hart said. "It's pretty special to have a strength and conditioning coach especially for a school of our size. We don't take that for granted, it's big time and it's paid major dividends. Kyle has a lot to do with it."

At the NAIA level, a full-time strength and conditioning coach isn't overly common. In the Great Plains Athletic Conference, only five of the 10 schools, excluding DWU, currently have a strength and conditioning coach. Three schools, hired strength and conditioning coaches after DWU had one in place. When Jamestown joins the GPAC, seven of the 12 schools will have one in place.

Cimpl noted he's fielded a lot of questions from other NAIA coaches asking about the strength and conditioning coach and the program the past three seasons.

"It's not just something we're seeing the benefits from, other teams especially in our conference, are noticing that our guys are in shape and playing extremely hard," Cimpl said. "Teams don't want to fall behind and they see us as frontrunners in that."

Preventing injuries, improving performance

As Hobbs describes it, his program is designed to do two things: decrease injury-risk and improve performance.

Hobbs said non-contact anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries were plaguing the football team and each sport had its own case of repeat injuries. While he can't prevent all injuries from happening, Hobbs said simple measures and regular training can greatly decrease how often injuries pop up.

"All of our guys and girls have benefitted because we can maintain a certain level of performance throughout a season," Hobbs said. "Before, kids were breaking down before the season would end."

Cimpl said the culture created inside the weight room has also translated to practice on the field for the DWU football. He said the mentality Hobbs has created for the athletes is nearly as important as the physical work.

"You know what you are going to get with coach Hobbs," Cimpl said. "When you walk into the weight room, there's a certain way of doing things and there's a certain way he wants things done. If you don't live up to those standards, it's not going to be a positive situation for you."

One athlete who greatly benefitted from Hobbs' program is men's basketball standout Jason Spicer. Spicer led the team in scoring with 21.4 points per game last year, which was 13th best in the country. He was named an All-American honorable mention and as a sophomore, the 6-foot-6 Spicer weighed around 250 pounds and wasn't counted on as a starter. But after a full offseason in the weight room and working with Hobbs, Spicer cut his weight down to 230 pounds and had a breakout season as a junior.

"We look for general quality, we want our kids to be strong, we want them to be explosive, we want them to be fast and we want to be mobile," Hobbs said. "Those are general qualities we can build up and then the coaches can be more specific with their sport."

It wasn't all success right away for Hobbs. Hart said throughout the first year, many DWU programs were figuring out how to utilize Hobbs.

"We left it open for our coaches to use him or not and only a few did right away. Now everyone is using him," Hart said. "All of our student athletes are benefiting from. Our coaches and student athletes respect coach Hobbs more and more for what he does."

A big part of Hobbs' success has been the way he treats every athlete. As the strength and conditioning coach, Hobbs said he sees every athlete and expects the same amount of work regardless of grade level, experience and injury. Both Cimpl and Hart credited Hobbs for looking out for every kids best interest, whether they see a lot of playing time or not.

"The kids are doing it because they believe in it," Hobbs said. "It's putting more demand on Brady and myself, but it's a real positive thing to be a part of."

And Hobbs, who has had previous experience with strength and conditioning programs working at the Division I level at Nebraska and Iowa State, has come to admire the DWU athletes. He pointed out at the NAIA level, students aren't required to stay throughout the summer and workout and many athletes aren't trying to get better because of a future career. He admires the DWU athletes for their passion and love the sport they compete in.

"Division I, those kids had to take classes and they had to stay there," Hobbs said about summer workouts. "Here, I got kids working full-time jobs just so they can stay and train this summer. That's really cool and it's great to be a part of that positive attitude."