COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. – This is not a brand-new experience for the MIAC as a football conference. The collection of Minnesota private colleges functioned effortlessly for two decades between 1990 and 2010 without St. Thomas securing or sharing first place.
On Saturday, as the Tommies opened play in their new Pioneer League in St. Paul, St. John's and Bethel — the MIAC's remaining Division III powers of recent times — were playing in the leafy woods of central Minnesota.
The crowd at St. Thomas was announced at 5,051 for what turned out to be a drubbing of Butler — Big East in basketball, big woof in football, apparently.
That audience was 4,000 fewer (9,133 officially) than were watching Bethel and St. John's in the Johnnies' natural bowl. And if this was a look at the best the new, Tommies-less MIAC has to offer, it was darn entertaining.
The first half was a slugfest and the second half was a shootout and, at game's end, the Johnnies had a seventh consecutive win over Bethel, 31-25.
Bethel took it to the Johnnies early with two-way quarterback Jaren Roste, constantly improving as a passer, and always a running threat at 6-4 and 220 (minimum).
The Royals' first possession had three conversions on third-and-long, then a 19-yard pass on fourth down from Roste to Bryce Kunkle. The kick was missed, and a couple of more chances went awry, and Bethel led only 6-0.
Meanwhile, St. John's was doing zero, before putting together a 15-play, 77-yard drive that allowed it to somehow hold a 7-6 halftime lead.
"I said to the players at halftime, 'We have made so many mistakes and we're ahead!' '' St. John's coach Gary Fasching said. "We definitely had to clean it up.
"I thought we had a defensive struggle on our hands. And then both teams misplaced their defense.''
The second half started with Conor Pavelko's field goal and Devin Vouk's 4-yard touchdown run to put the Johnnies ahead 17-6. Interesting on two counts:
Pavelko, a freshman from Sioux Falls, might actually provide the Johnnies with a much-needed kicker, and running back Vouk is in Collegeville because his St. Cloud State team dropped football.
And then came the shootout:
The Royals drove 70 yards for a touchdown. St. John's drove 71 yards for a touchdown. Bethel and Roste trumped that with their 71-yard drive for a touchdown.
That made it 24-19, Johnnies, early in the fourth, and the fun kept on coming.
Vouk capped a 92-yard drive from the 1; the big play was a 33-yard pass to star receiver Ravi Alston. That looked as if might be enough to do in Bethel, when the Royals were fourth-and-4 at their 42 with 5:15 left.
And then there was freshman Joey Kidder running wide open behind the Johnnies' secondary: 58-yard TD pass from Roste, and it was 31-25 for St. John's with five minutes left.
The Johnnies probably were destined to regret a quick punt and another chance for Roste. That punt was looming when the Johnnies faced third-and-4 at their 41. Aaron Syverson, the Johnnies' post-Jackson Erdmann starter at quarterback, threw a pass over the middle that seemed destined to sail beyond Alston's reach.
"Ravi's excellent, but I didn't think he had a chance to grab that one,'' said Nick Neumann, St. John's outstanding center.
Neumann, and most other witnesses, were wrong. Alston rose and grabbed the pass.
Later, Alston was in the crowd of St. John's players and fans who congregate after games. tradition in D-III, field storming in D-I.
"That's why I'm here, to catch everything that's near me,'' Alston said. "Aaron and I actually practice those. It wasn't that tough, not for a 6-foot-4 receiver.''
Once Alston secured the first down, St. John's ran out the clock for the win. The Johnnies could be destined to play the Royals again — at Bethel — in the last week of the season.
That's because the MIAC's new football alignment has two five-team divisions. The last week of the eight-game conference schedule will have games between divisions, with the two first-place teams playing for the MIAC's automatic berth in the Division III playoffs.
Alston came to St. John's in the fall of 2018 from Lake Elsinore, Calif. The D-! recruiters who came to his school were interested in others. He received a St. John's recommendation, made a visit, and loved the atmosphere.
That said, he could use a remaining year of eligibility after graduation to check for a Division I offer (scholarship variety).
"This was a great game,'' Alston said. "That No. 2 for them (Kidder) … he's a dog, that kid. We might have to play 'em again, and it probably will be more of this.''