It was a scene St. Thomas coaches, student-athletes and fans had dreamed about when the university first announced its historic Division I transition: thousands of people in a world-class arena cheering loudly for the Tommies as the they played in a postseason tournament.
Never mind that most of those people weren’t actually St. Thomas fans. It was still “a pretty special moment,” recalled athletics director Phil Esten.
In the closing minutes against Oral Roberts in the men’s Summit League basketball tournament semifinals, fans began arriving for the evening’s next game between North Dakota State and South Dakota State at the Denny Sanford Premier Center. Undefeated in conference play, Oral Roberts was the Summit League’s top team all season, and a potential upset was brewing.
And who doesn’t love a good upset?
So, when senior Parker Bjorklund made a 3-pointer to pull the Tommies within 60-57 with less than two minutes to play, Esten noticed St. Thomas’ cheering section suddenly was much louder and bigger than the couple hundred purple-clad supporters who were there all game.
“Fans in the arena exploded in support of the Tommies,” Esten said.
The Tommies ultimately lost 70-65 to end their season, but they (and their fans) got another taste of the D-I athletics experience. The day was emblematic of the progress seen in the second year of St. Thomas’ transition from D-III.
The teams have been more competitive, whether it’s winning their first conference football title, beating a nationally ranked D-I team for the first time or having individual student-athletes win major conference honors for standout performances. And there have been more successes away from competition as well in the form of record-breaking donor gifts, continued excellence in the classrooms and a new level of visibility for the St. Thomas name.
Additionally, overall ticket sales and attendance across all sports is up 20% from a year ago, with hockey and basketball leading the way. The homecoming football game attracted a capacity crowd of 6,588, and student attendance is up anywhere between 30-50%, depending on the sport.
Regardless of win-loss records, it’s hard to consider the year in Tommie athletics as anything but a win.
“Our teams’ performances energized our community this year, but even more important than what happened on the field and on the court is the culture-building work that happened behind the scenes,” said St. Thomas President Rob Vischer. “We are building an exemplary athletics program that our community will be proud of for generations to come.”
A taste of victory
In competition, the football team won 10 straight games to secure the Pioneer Football League championship outright, becoming the first reclassifying football team since 2004 to a win a conference championship in its first two seasons of D-I play. It also became St. Thomas’ first D-I team to be ranked nationally, finishing 20th in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
Men’s basketball won 19 games compared to 10 the previous winter and finished tied for fourth in the Summit League (they tied for eighth last year). Both the men and women recorded their first-ever Summit League tournament victories in March, each beating Western Illinois in their respective first-round games.
Both hockey programs also were far more competitive against some of the nation’s top teams. For example, 16 of the men’s 36 games were played against Top 20-ranked teams, and they secured their first win over a nationally ranked team, beating No. 13 Michigan Tech on the road 3-2 on Jan. 14. Despite 10 one-goal losses on the season, the men were the most improved team in winning percentage of any D-I men’s program nationally.
Women’s hockey also made great strides playing in the nation’s toughest conference, improving by three wins over last season. Many losses came against teams ranked among the top eight in the country; the Tommie women recorded their first victory over a ranked team when they upset No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth (last season’s national runner-up) in a shootout on Dec. 10. In his season-ending news conference, coach Joel Johnson talked about the opportunity afforded to his seniors.
“Those players who have been with us for four years realized that they’re actually Division I hockey players and they didn’t realize it when they signed up to go to St. Thomas,” he said after watching his team play fourth-ranked Minnesota. “But I think they left here feeling valued and fulfilled and with a identify that, ‘Yeah, I’m a Division I hockey player,’ and that was special.”
Signs of progress were evident in other sports. In men’s track and field, St. Thomas crowned its first individual D-I champions when Nate Raddatz won the decathlon at the May 2022 Summit League championship meet, and Sam May won the heptathlon in the conference’s February indoor meet.
In golf, both the men’s and women’s teams were poised to improve on last year’s finishes, and the men won St. Thomas’ first-ever D-I tournament in any sport when they took first place in Omaha’s Big O Tournament in October. Senior men’s golfer Matt Armstrong – one of the few remaining original D-III players – recalled the scene.
men’s golfer Matt Armstrong
I remember the night before the third round we were all talking as a group and were saying, ‘This is our moment.’
“I remember the night before the third round we were all talking as a group and were saying, ‘This is our moment.’ We were right there, and we put ourselves in a tremendous spot to succeed and we did,” Armstrong said. “Being able to be a part of history is awesome and it is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
The Summit League tournament game against Oral Roberts provided a glimpse of a major college sports atmosphere for St. Thomas on the road. A couple months earlier, the public got a peek at what that atmosphere can look like on St. Thomas’ own campus. In January, the single largest monetary donation given to a Minnesota university was announced for building the Lee and Penny Anderson Arena, the future home for Tommies basketball and (for the first time ever on campus) ice hockey.
Hundreds packed the Irv Kanthak Atrium at Anderson Student Center for the announcement. Excitement built as renderings circulated on social media, showing the future of gameday experiences. The arena will be a multiuse facility that will host commencements, academic convocations, career fairs, concerts and more.
“This arena will be our home to build relationships, win championships and make lasting memories,” men’s hockey coach Rico Blasi told attendees at the Jan. 17 announcement event. “A home where we will commit to bring our very best and where our community and alums will be proud to wear the purple. … A home where we will have an opportunity to leave a legacy, a legacy to build on the student experience that St. Thomas has always offered. An experience that transforms each of us to know we are here for something bigger than just an athletic experience.”
Excitement translated into more generosity: Two months later, the university announced another $12 million was raised to bring the total to $87 million against the $131 million fundraising goal.
But highly visible, major gifts have only been part of the story. Overall, athletics saw a 74% year-over-year increase in the number of contributing donors, including a 196% increase in donations from the annual Tommie Give Day event. Another indicator could be seen in participation in the Tommie Score rewards program, which offers benefits such as seat selection in new facilities, priority seating at away games, parking and seat upgrades and others. In the first seven months since its September 2022 launch, the department saw a 75% increase in membership.
Ben Fraser, St. Thomas’ senior director of development for Athletics
The increase in giving at all levels this year shows that Tommie alumni, fans, parents and supporters from across the country are excited about what is happening and believe it is helping our student-athletes achieve comprehensive excellence.”
As a result of these efforts, the Tommie Athletic Fund had already surpassed its single largest fundraising year with three months left in the fiscal calendar – even without the Lee and Penny Anderson Arena gift.
“The increase in giving at all levels this year shows that Tommie alumni, fans, parents and supporters from across the country are excited about what is happening and believe it is helping our student-athletes achieve comprehensive excellence,” said Ben Fraser, St. Thomas’ senior director of development for Athletics.
Bigger donor gifts and revenues aren’t the only returns the university will receive in the D-I era: The St. Thomas name itself continues to receive more exposure.
In November, for instance, men’s basketball opened the 2022-23 season against then ninth-ranked Creighton on FS1, a channel available in nearly 100 million households nationwide. In January, women’s hockey faced nationally ranked Minnesota-Duluth on Bally Sports North, a network found in nearly 20 million homes. In exchange for producing that game, St. Thomas received 12 minutes of commercial airtime and both intermissions filled with university-sponsored content (for both the BSN game against Minnesota-Duluth, and a February game against Minnesota aired locally on Fox 9+).
The university’s marketing department reported athletics-related media mentions over a seven-month period between July 2022 and end of January 2023 (1.5 thousand) more than doubled that of the same time frame from 2018-19 – the last full fall semester of D-III competition. Back then, 76% of that media coverage came from outside Minnesota; today, that number stands at 87% with more major media outlets represented.
I think I want to become a St. Thomas fan. https://t.co/Lw7fN9ZzCa— Alec Lewis (@alec_lewis) January 17, 2023
Increased visibility supports recruiting efforts. For example, the women’s hockey recruiting class for next winter includes three of the 10 Ms. Hockey finalists in Minnesota. Not surprisingly, Johnson noted hearing St. Thomas mentioned multiple times during broadcasts of the Minnesota state girls high school hockey tournament this spring.
“I think it just goes to show you we’re doing the right things,” the coach said. “We’ve got such a great product. And by ‘product,’ I mean an experience at St. Thomas both from an on-ice and off-ice standpoint. We’re different than every team that we play because of our unique profile … I think the future’s really bright.”
So do many others.