Steve Fritz may have said it best Tuesday: “It’s a great time to be a Tommie!”
The men’s basketball coach had just settled the Schoenecker Arena crowd, which had given him a standing ovation upon his introduction, and he got another roar as the Tommie faithful cheered those opening words.
“This is about as fun as it gets,” he added.
Fritz’s comments came at a party to celebrate the NCAA Division III national championship won by the Tommies March 19 in Salem, Va. About 500 fans showed up to watch a video, hear speeches from coaches, players and administrators, eat championship cake and buy championship T-shirts and sweatshirts.
Coaches and players alike saluted fans for hanging with the team throughout its 30-3 season, including four NCAA playoff games in Illinois and Virginia, as the Tommies brought home their first national title in men’s basketball and 14th in all sports.
Fritz praised the leadership shown by seniors Tyler Nicolai, Alex Healy, Anders Halvorsen, Teddy Archer and Brady Ervin, especially after St. Thomas lost at Carleton on Feb. 9 to fall into a first-place tie with the Knights. “They decided at that time it was time to step it up,” said Fritz, who finished his 31st season as St. Thomas coach by winning three National Coach of the Year awards.
Step it up they did. The Tommies won their next 12 games, tying for the MIAC regular-season title, winning the MIAC playoff title and sweeping the NCAA playoffs, which culminated with the 78-54 championship game victory against College of Wooster.
As the team advanced through the NCAA playoffs, Nicolai recalled, his teammates kept reminding themselves, “We have to keep playing. We didn’t want it to end.”
Junior center Tommy Hannon, who joined Nicolai on the Final Four all-tournament team, credited the seniors for holding the team together. “I love you guys,” he said, turning around to face the seniors. “This has been the best year of my life.”
Assistant coach and psychology professor Johnny Tauer ’95, a star on the last St. Thomas team to play in a Final Four (in 1994), said the Tommies “couldn’t be better role models” and cited three qualities in this team: Unselfishness, humility and trust.
Fritz sounded a similar theme earlier in his remarks when he marveled over how well everyone played together and put their collective aspiration above any individual goals. Quoting one of his favorite sayings, author unknown, he said: “Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to produce uncommon results.”
John Hughes, another longtime assistant coach, talked about the team’s community service project while in Salem. Players went to an elementary school to read to students and play outside with them. One third-grader, whose dad recently had died, left the group to sit by himself on a swing, and sophomore forward John Nance went over to talk with him. Within moments, the kid was swinging and having a great time, and one of his teachers credited Nance for turning the student around with his kind words and actions. “We will never forget you,” she wrote to Hughes in an email. “We just can’t thank you enough.”
St. Thomas, by the way, plans to send that third-grader an NCAA championship T-shirt and hat.
Once the speeches were over Tuesday, one task remained. The players walked over to the west wall, pulled a cord hanging from the second-floor walkway and unveiled a purple-and-white NCAA championship banner. It soon will take its rightful place on the east wall with the other 13 national championship banners.
The Tommies walked off to more cheers and the strains of the Queen song “We Are the Champions.”