The 2020-21 sports calendar in NCAA Division III athletics was blown up by COVID-19 to the point very few teams played football, and there were no hockey or basketball tournaments.
Tournament play was restored for spring. The St. Thomas softball team finished fourth in the MIAC, then won the conference playoff, an NCAA regional and super regional, and finished fifth in the Division III softball World Series.
The baseball team topped that. Coach Chris Olean's club won the MIAC regular season by a fraction, then won an eight-team regional — in Collegeville, home of St. John's, of all places — to reach the Division III World Series in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The Tommies went 3-0 in their bracket to gain the best-of-three final series, then lost twice to Salisbury (Md.) and finished as national runners-up. The bulk of that team would return for 2022, although not with a goal of joining Dennis Denning's Tommies from 2001 and 2009 as D-III national champs.
The second loss to Salisbury, a 4-2 final, came on June 8, 2021. And with that, St. Thomas' 100-year run as a member of the MIAC was concluded, and so was its time in Division III athletics.
This weekend, it was again baseball concluding a historic turn for St. Thomas athletics — in a fraction of the time and with far less glory, but here's the epitaph for the Tommies' large dream:
It's a good thing they are attempting to bring us another D-I option.
The baseball team was closing its season and Summit League play against Nebraska Omaha with a Thursday-to-Saturday series. The Tommies' final event of their D-I debut will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday in Miesville, home of the Mudhens. The reason for that is it's graduation day on campus.
St. Thomas will take a 15-29 record into Saturday. One of the victories was 6-0 over the Gophers (as were three of the losses). The Tommies softball team finished 14-36.
From a pair of D-III World Series to also-ran status, with a large share of the same players. How was that handled by the athletes in the middle of this historic transition?
"You think about our student-athletes, not playing for championships, but most of the feedback I've gotten is they have taken the challenge and run with it,'' athletic director Phil Esten said. "As seasons progressed, most of our teams became more competitive.
"Beating the Gophers in baseball, beating South Florida in softball, having a winning first season, third place, in [non-scholarship] Pioneer Football … we've had some terrific moments.''
St. Thomas had won the MIAC's all-sports championships in both women's and men's athletics continuously from 2007-08 through 2018-19. COVID-19 wiped out the awards the past two years, and the 2021-22 winners are St. John's (men) and Gustavus (women).
One caveat in the St. Thomas move to Division I is ineligibility for NCAA postseason competition for five years. The Tommies also weren't in the Summit League basketball tournaments.
"We will be in the conference basketball tournaments next season,'' Esten said. "We could dream of winning it and still not go to the NCAAs, but what Sioux Falls does with that tournament is incredible. It will be outstanding to be there.''
Esten paused and said: "Have you seen the recruiting class J.T. [coach John Tauer] is bringing in? I'm confident J.T. and Ruth [Sinn] are going to have us being very competitive soon.''
Pushing the hockey programs immediately into the men's CCHA and women's WCHA led to horrible records: 3-32-1 for coach Rico Blasi and 5-27-1 for Joel Johnson (also occupied as the U.S. Olympic women's coach).
Somehow, somewhere, the Tommies are going to get a new hockey arena. "No matter the rumors you hear, we aren't there yet,'' Esten said. "Obviously, hockey is a sport where we see great potential.''
So does Cory Laylin, now a Blasi assistant after turning around Hamline's men's program. We talked for a couple of minutes and I mentioned the Gophers' load of talent for 2022-23 — star players deciding to return and join Bob Motzko's spectacular recruiting class.
"They are getting everybody they want over there,'' I said.
Laylin smiled slightly and said: "For now.''
Give 'em the whole five-year waiting period, with a move toward full scholarships, and a hockey arena, and the Tommies bringing in Marquette to Target Center for a hoops game, and we'll be saying:
"Isn't it fun to have an alternative to Gophers vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff tonight?''