by Bruce Strand, Sports Editor
Had Ryan Servaty won a video game 15 years ago, local soccer might have missed out on one of its best players and youth leaders.
“I lost a bet with a friend,” Servaty said, grinning. “I played football until eighth grade. We bet on a video game. If I won, he would quit soccer and play football. If he won, I’d quit football and play soccer.”
Servaty figured he’d prevail, but Dave Wingard beat him at a FIFA soccer video game.
“And that was fortunate, because soccer is my life now,” Servaty said.
He was a three-year starter for the Elks, capped by a stellar senior year when he was conference MVP and a Mr. Soccer finalist, before playing three years of college soccer.
Servaty, who turns 29 next week, has headed Three Rivers Soccer Association for six years, officially as director of player development, while running Ryan Servaty Sports Academy, which provides soccer and basketball opportunities. He’s assistant coach for University of St. Thomas men’s soccer and helps coach Elk boys basketball.
“I feel blessed to have the opportunity to make an impact on so many kids’ lives,” said Servaty, noting that TRSA has more than 1,200 kids. He also feels blessed to still be alive after two harrowing experiences in his early 20s; more on that later.
This week, Servaty was coaching his TRSA U15C1 girls team in league playoffs — they nabbed a state berth beating the White Bear Chaos 3-0 Wednesday in Coon Rapids — while conducting daily 5-on-5 boys basketball games, a two-month program at Salk, through the Academy, which also conducts three soccer camps in the summer.
“Ryan is passionate about the game,” said Tom Olson, who coached him with the Elks. “He’s really good with technique and teaching skills.”
Servaty has headed the same TRSA girls group three years and before that had boys teams. Before joining the Tommies staff, he had MIAC positions at Augsburg and Bethel. He coached Zimmerman’s first two seasons and had two one-year stints as an Elk assistant.
Servaty played two years on a good D-II team at Wisconsin-Parkside, where he had a D-II full ride, but wasn’t comfortable being “owned” by the program due to the scholarship and transferred to St. Thomas, where he played another year.
He passed up his last year to start the boys soccer program at Zimmerman at the request of Elk River activities director John Barth and took his last year at the University of Minnesota, earning a sports management degree. He coached the Thunder two years and brought the fledgling team in above .500 each season, with an upset of Rogers in the second year.
With the Elks, as center midfielder, Servaty scored a then-school record 19 goals his senior year despite not playing at a scoring position. The late starter didn’t have the best skill sets but got by with “athletic ability and outworking people.” He helped the Elks reach state his junior year.
Servaty stuck with basketball (“I only played sparingly”) until his senior year when he quit to focus on soccer, having earned a college scholarship.
Early in life, Servaty has had some jolts. His situation growing up was “not the best” so he left his family as a freshman when the Tom Winberg family took him in. Things stabilized after that, helped by his surroundings and, of course, basketball and soccer.
At 23 he was in a serious car accident that claimed the lives of two friends while he and another survived. He said that while he would not wish such a tragic experience on anyone, it was a “life-changing” event that “helped me solidify my relationship with Christ” and made him realize what is important in life.
A year later, while serving as an Elk assistant coach, Servaty noticed he was bruising and getting fatigued easily. He was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, meaning his bone marrow wasn’t reproducing red and white blood cells fast enough. Bone marrow transplants don’t guarantee survival. It was an anxious time.
But his doctors at the University decided to try something else.
“They shut me down for two weeks,” he said. “I couldn’t walk or do anything. They cleaned out my body.” The plan worked. He’s been off medications for two years, getting a checkup every six months.
The episodes convinced Servaty to “give back all I can” to Elk River, Rogers and Zimmerman, where he’s learned much from coaches, teachers and parents, and where sports “helped save my life.” He said he’s turned down three small-college head coaching offers to stick with TRSA, St. Thomas and ERHS for the foreseeable future.
Servaty is bit of a pied piper for local soccer. He acknowledges while spors like football, hockey and basketball generaly keep the kids who start young, soccer sometimes takes some selling.
“Kids sign up at age 4 to 6, and we try to find ways to keep them interested and keep them excited,” said Servaty.
He conveys to kids what he loves himself about soccer: the teamwork, the flow, the patterns and the need for all 11 players to be in synch.
As a young survivor of life-threatening experiences, Servaty said he makes every day count.
“Like with any cancer, it can come back any time. But I’m living each day with a smile on my face, trying to make a difference in young people’s lives.”