Ryan Dufault will officially commit to St. Thomas on Wednesday, with the same hopes and dreams as every other athlete on the first day of the early college signing period. The point guard from Waseca wants to help the Tommies reach the NCAA tournament one day, and to play a part in winning a conference championship banner.
But Dufault knows he might never reap those rewards himself. As St. Thomas moves up from Division III to Division I, it is ineligible for NCAA postseason play until 2026-27, and it faces much steeper competition in the Summit League. So Dufault is prepared to be a builder, setting the foundation for future success as part of the school’s first group of Division I recruits.
“The coaches say it a lot, that we’re going to be something special,” said Dufault, who will join the Tommies as a preferred walk-on next fall. “They’ve told us all the people that come to St. Thomas will remember us as the first class ever to transition from D-III to D-I. It’s going to be a challenge for sure, but I’ve always liked challenges.”
Wednesday is the NCAA’s initial signing date for sports other than football, the first day when St. Thomas will sign Division I recruits. The school will become a provisional member of D-I next July, about two years after it was ejected from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. It will compete as a member of the Summit League in all sports except football (Pioneer League), men’s hockey (CCHA) and women’s hockey (WCHA).
Over the past several months, athletic director Phil Esten has laid the financial and organizational groundwork for Division I membership. He has hired directors of development, compliance and academic support, and the school launched the Tommie Athletic Fund — its first department-wide fundraising arm — in October.
“Every day, something happens that makes it feel more real,” Esten said. “Whether it’s seeing a draft of our future Summit League schedules, or talking with a nonconference opponent about the possibility of scheduling a football game or a hockey game, or talking with coaches about the athletes in our very first Division I class. Signing day is another step forward for all of us.”
Men’s basketball coach John Tauer expects to sign two athletes Wednesday, with more to come in the spring. Dufault, whom Tauer has coached with the Minnesota Heat AAU program, epitomizes the attitude he’s seeking.
“We’ll build this gradually, with guys who are excited to be part of this historic jump,” Tauer said. “I think that’s the part we’re most looking forward to. We have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before.”
No planned sports cuts
Because of the pandemic, St. Thomas’ fall sports have been shifted to the spring, and its winter sports are awaiting word on when and if they will compete. That has put the school’s final MIAC season into a holding pattern, but the transition to Division I has kept coaches and administrators busy.
As early as last January, Esten had begun building strategies for key facets of the move, such as adding scholarships and increasing staffing and operating budgets. Though COVID-19 forced some adjustments, Esten said there are no plans to drop any of St. Thomas’ 22 sports. He declined to discuss initial budget projections, but he said the school has time to phase things in.
“Knowing we’re entering this provisional period, nobody expects us to go from zero to 60,” Esten said. “That allows us to be very intentional and strategic around things, whether it’s hiring or scholarships or facilities.”
Some things needed to be addressed more quickly than others. Andrew Nelson, the Tommies’ new associate athletic director for compliance, came to St. Thomas from the Gophers in July. He immediately began educating Tommies coaches on D-I rules regarding recruiting, financial aid and eligibility.
Another hire from the U, Ben Fraser, started in August as senior associate athletic director for development. He and Esten led the creation of the Tommie Athletic Fund, which solicits donations for general athletic department support, facilities and capital projects, endowed scholarships and team-specific needs. The fund already has received more than $3 million in gifts and pledges.
St. Thomas also has announced two fully funded endowed scholarships, one for men’s basketball and one for women’s basketball. Each will be awarded for the first time in 2021-22.
Few coaching changes
Esten said all the Tommies head coaches plan to stay, except for Jeff Boeser (men’s hockey) and Scott Proshek (men’s golf), who are retiring. Several said they were energized by the move to D-I and remaking their rosters to be competitive in the Summit League.
Women’s basketball coach Ruth Sinn anticipates signing about five scholarship athletes during the early signing period. Sheila McGill, the Tommies’ women’s soccer coach, expects to bring in 12 athletes. She said area club and high school coaches are happy to have a second D-I program in the state, giving players another option besides the Gophers.
Baseball coach Chris Olean expanded his recruiting range, looking as far as Colorado and Michigan as he assembled an eight-player recruiting class. Thanh Pham, in his 18th season as the Tommies’ volleyball coach, expects the D-I move to broaden his national recruiting reach as well. Both coaches said they will need a higher caliber of athlete to compete in Division I, but both insisted the fundamental character of St. Thomas recruits will not change.
“We’ll have to look for a different type of athlete — bigger, stronger and faster,” Pham said. “But the profile of our students will be the same. We’re still looking for that very well-rounded kid that does great inside and outside the classroom.”
Tauer already has extended scholarship offers to multiple high school juniors, including 6-8 power forward Ahjany Lee of Byron, who also has offers from the Gophers and Florida. Tauer said athletes are fascinated by the story of St. Thomas’ move, and many are intrigued by the idea of doing something unprecedented.
Dufault can’t wait to get started. He was recruited by multiple schools in the D-II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, but as he followed news of the Tommies’ path to D-I, he began to think bigger.
He expects gradual improvement over the first three years or so, as St. Thomas adjusts to a higher level of competition. Even if he never sees the payoff, Dufault said he will cherish the opportunity to be a pioneer.
“We’re going to work hard in practice, and we’ll help Coach Tauer recruit other guys to come in,’’ Dufault said. “The ultimate goal is to build the program. This is the only program in history to go from D-III to D-I. To be part of that is really exciting.’’