This was supposed to be a monumental weekend for the St. Thomas football team — its first Division I football game against St. Francis (Ill.) at O'Shaughnessy Stadium on Saturday.
The big moment has to wait after that game was canceled last month because of COVID-19-related issues for St. Francis. Now, the Tommies will open their season at Michigan Tech next Saturday, and this weekend they will play a short, scripted scrimmage in front of the 1,500 freshmen arriving on campus this weekend.
While the bulk of St. Thomas sports teams joined the Summit League, that conference does not have football. So the Tommies football team will play in the Pioneer League, which consists of Butler, Davidson, Dayton, Drake, Marist, Morehead State, Presbyterian, San Diego, Stetson and Valparaiso — schools spanning from California to New York.
"We have been studying this league for a while now," St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said. "Its beauty, I think, lies in its diversity. It is diverse [in terms of school location], schematically, it's diverse in terms of the areas they get their players from. That's what, I think is so unique ... this is the only league that is coast-to-coast and border-to-border."
If there is a program at the top of that pile, it's San Diego. The Toreros are coached by former NFL linebacker Dale Lindsey and were either outright or co-conference champions from 2014 to '19. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh got his first head coaching gig at San Diego from 2004 to '06.
After facing Michigan Tech, St. Thomas will face its biggest early test as a Division I program, traveling to face Northern Iowa on Sept. 18. Then the Tommies have their Pioneer League opener against Butler on Sept. 25.
They will play at San Diego on Oct. 2.
In 2020, the Pioneer League suspended the fall season because of COVID-19 before playing in the spring — though Dayton and Marist opted out altogether. San Diego was looking for another conference title when Davidson shocked the Toreros with a 31-25 defeat — their first conference loss since 2015.
Then San Diego lost 20-19 to Valparaiso in its final game of the season, giving Davidson the conference title — and that might be a harbinger of things to come.
Pioneer League coaches voted Davidson the preseason favorite to win the conference, with eight first-place votes (97 points). San Diego was second (93). St. Thomas came in eighth (36).
Caruso said that he is familiar with Davidson coach Scott Abell, dating back to Abell's tenure at Washington & Lee in Division III.
"I have thought for many years that Davidson was the up-and-coming team that was going to do it right," Caruso said. "Coach has done an amazing job with them."
The Tommies will face Davidson on Nov. 6 in North Carolina.