The first season playing Division I football in the Pioneer League for St. Thomas was a success story that took a program used to playing its schedule within a few square miles and blasted it across the country.
On Wednesday, coach Glenn Caruso announced the Tommies' 2022 recruiting class, which includes 28 players spanning 11 states and reflected the nationwide feel from playing in a conference that features teams in New York, North Carolina, Florida and California.
"I don't think you can underestimate the presence that us playing in those areas helped in recruiting," Caruso said at a news conference announcing the class. "The majority of our guys, vast majority, are upper Midwest. But if we're going to find a quarterback from California that we think fits our program and our university well, we have no problem going there. If we have to go to Utah to get a kicker, we have zero problem going there."
That quarterback, Travis Plugee, hails from Bakersfield, Calif., and has a family full of Division I athletes, including his mom and dad, who played at Loyola Marymount. The kicker, Steven Shagen of Park City, Utah, hit 11 of 12 field-goal attempts this season.
The new class includes 11 recruits from Minnesota, five from Iowa, two from Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey, and one apiece from California, Illinois, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Nebraska.
The Pioneer League does not offer athletic scholarships — though St. Thomas can offer merit-based academic scholarships to its players — which led Caruso and his staff to focus on finding players that not only were an athletic fit but also academically and culturally.
Caruso said he studied programs in the Ivy Leagues and the military academies to learn how to balance finding the right player while competing with programs that could offer more financially.
"Maybe this isn't the fanciest class on Day 1, much like you know what we got off a lot of planes this year and we weren't the fanciest-looking team that got off a plane, either. That's a point of pride," Caruso said. "All of a sudden, the guy puts the ball down, he blows the whistle, and the game is played the way it's supposed to be played."
The Tommies showed that last season. After being picked to finish eighth out of 11 teams in the conference in the preseason coaches' poll, St. Thomas finished tied for third in the conference at 6-2 — trailing Davidson and San Diego, both 7-1. The Tommies' only Pioneer League losses came to the Wildcats and Toreros.
St. Thomas finished 7-3 overall, with the other loss coming at Northern Iowa early in the nonconference schedule.
And while Wednesday's class was more of a national collection, it still centered on kids from metro programs in Minnesota that Caruso said understood what St. Thomas has to offer.
The Minnesotans signed were linebacker Grant Achterkirch (Owatonna), wide receiver Julian Alfaro Diedrich (Wayzata), linebacker Charlie Boucher (Minneapolis Southwest), tight end Will Chlebecek (Lakeville South), wide receiver Colin Dussault (Chaska), offensive lineman Gavin Falk (Edina), defensive back Rod Finley (Farmington), tight end Jack Kinsey (Wayzata), offensive lineman James Morrison (Cretin-Derham Hall), defensive back Sanjay Redd (Minnehaha Academy) and linebacker Ryan Sever (Benilde-St. Margaret's).
"We were able to get the No. 2 leading tackler in the state of Minnesota, and I'm very happy that we got Charlie," Caruso said. "But I'm also happy we got the No. 1 leading tackler in the state of Minnesota in Ryan, too. To be able to get the state's local talent who knows how to play football? That's the lifeblood of our program."