To say 2021-22 was one of the most anticipated years ever for Tommie Athletics is an understatement. Not only were people more than ready for the full return of college athletics after COVID-19 upended the sports world a year earlier, but (after two long years of waiting for new conference homes) St. Thomas finally opened play in its new Division I conferences.
Here are some of the highlights (both in and outside of competition) from St. Thomas’ historic first year as the first modern NCAA program to directly transition from D-III to D-I.
Tasting some success
When it came to competing for the first time against D-I opponents, many expected thrashings at the hands of higher-caliber competition (and there was some of that), but the Tommies held their own (sometimes surprisingly). Men’s cross country, for instance, placed second out of eight teams in the Summit League championship, three spots ahead of preseason predictions. And football finished a win away from sharing the Pioneer Football League title. They ultimately landed in third, despite being projected eighth out of 11 teams. They also ranked second in home attendance.
The university launched the Intercollegiate Athletics Advisory Committee (IAAC) – comprising faculty, staff and students – to ensure a focus on academics in athletics programs. The focus shone through: Out of 505 student-athletes, 270 hold a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or better. That includes 30 with 4.0 and 78 with a 3.9 or better. One of those 4.0 students was senior soccer captain Lexi Serreyn, a double major in physics and electrical engineering who made history with the program’s first-ever goal on Aug. 29 against Chicago State. Serreyn was later named to the 2021 Summit League Women’s Soccer All-Academic Team.
The D-I move brought some chances for prime-time exposure for St. Thomas. Men’s hockey, for instance, drew over 4,000 fans to St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center for a game against national runner-up St. Cloud State. Then, in January, both the men’s and women’s hockey teams got more time in the limelight as part of the Hockey Day Minnesota lineup, playing outdoors against Minnesota State Mankato. The football team’s game against Northern Iowa was broadcast nationally on ESPN3.
Road trips in previous years often involved bus rides across the Twin Cities; a “long” road trip usually meant northwest Minnesota. Although the shortest conference trips are still to Minneapolis to face the Gopher women’s hockey team, St. Thomas teams now travel coast to coast. The first year of road trips included visits to 28 states like Alaska, California, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, New York and the Carolinas.
New funding sources
Over $12 million was raised for the Tommie Athletic Fund in its first year, including for the university’s first three named athletic scholarships. The fund closed 21 major gifts, with 10 committed at $1 million or greater. Additionally, Tommie Give Day brought in a record-breaking $1.2 million in November. The year also saw a first-of-its-kind partnership with national sports marketing, media and technology services company Learfield. The agreement covers ticketing, sales, licensing and multimedia rights through the company’s suite of services and gives St. Thomas a better way to engage audiences.