I shook my head last month when I read a headline on a Minneapolis Star Tribune sports column that fans looking for a winning Minnesota team were in a tough spot because of the losing seasons of several teams in professional sports or at the University of Minnesota.
“They want winners?” I groused to myself. “They just need to stop by Schoenecker Arena.”
Now that the spring semester is underway after the two-week holiday break and January Term, I will say the same thing to St. Thomas students, faculty and staff: Spend some time in Schoenecker Arena watching the hottest Division III basketball teams in town – and in the country, for that matter.
Their records are astounding and, for this point in a season, they represent the best combined start in St. Thomas history. The Tommie women, ranked No. 3 in NCAA Division III, are 19-0. The men’s team, ranked No. 2 in the country, is 17-1. That adds up to 36-1, for a winning percentage of .973.
That one loss? Coach John Tauer’s men’s team lost 68-65 at Gustavus on Dec. 3. I saw that game, and it’s fair to say we did not play well. But we since have rattled off 13 straight wins, including a 64-52 win over Gustavus last week, so all is well.
St. Thomas has had strong basketball teams since 1977-78, the first season the women played, and both teams have made deep runs into the NCAA playoffs on several occasions. It’s certainly too early to predict how this season’s squads will do in the playoffs, but if they stay healthy and continue to play this soundly, we will be watching basketball well into March.
Athletic director Steve Fritz played and coached St. Thomas basketball for 44 seasons, closing his career with a national championship in 2011. He now watches from a corner in Schoenecker Arena, and he is impressed with what he sees.
“Both teams play very good defense more than anything,” he said, “and you always put yourself in a good position because of that. They shoot well, they have few turnovers and they have great players coming off the bench. That balance is so important. Good coaching, too!”
Everyone expected Ruth Sinn’s Tommies to have a banner season. She returned a veteran team, including three of the MIAC’s top players in seniors Maggie Weiers, Jenna Dockter and Anna Smith, and they dominate play. They are big, fast and aggressive. Their closest game has been nine points (vs. UW-Stevens Point), and their average margin of victory is 24 points. They rank No. 2 in Division III both in field goal shooting (47 percent) and No. 2 in scoring defense (45.7 points).
Tauer had a few question marks going into his fourth year, coming off a 22-6 season that ended with three losses in the last four games. The Tommies played unevenly in their first few games, including the disappointing loss at Gustavus, but have improved markedly and are a resilient bunch focused on winning the program’s 10th consecutive MIAC regular-season title. They lead Division III in three-point field goal percentage (44.4) and have six players averaging double figures in points.
But enough with the statistics. Another compelling reason to go to games is the atmosphere. Schoenecker Arena was jammed a week ago Saturday when we beat St. John’s, and it sure was fun to see the fans storm the floor after the final buzzer. It wiped out, if momentarily, that recurring nightmare I have of all that red filling our football field after the Johnnies defeated us last fall.
There’s no reason we can’t fill Schoenecker again as we head into the regular-season stretch and the MIAC and NCAA playoffs, always hoping that either the men or women will return to the Final Four. Or maybe both? That would be another first.
Don’t like basketball? Maybe you need to check out hockey. The men’s team, ranked No. 14 in Division III, is 9-1-1 since Thanksgiving.
Want winners? You know where to find them!