Club sports are prevalent at any university, but they often thrive at Division III schools where lower enrollment and smaller budgets sometimes prevent certain sports from achieving varsity status. St. Thomas is no different. Here is a look back at the history of three of the biggest club sports at St. Thomas: rugby, lacrosse and crew.
Rugby: November 1913
That’s the first recorded reference to rugby at St. Thomas. At the end of the school year in 1914, a poem written by Richard W. Doherty was published in the Purple and Gray, the student newspaper. The poem references a Thanksgiving rugby match between St. Thomas and Marquette University, which the “heroes of St. Thomas” won.
Despite this “heroic” victory more than 100 years ago, organized rugby didn’t come to St. Thomas until 1973 in the form of the club team. A few interested students started the club and, for the first few years, players often would have to recruit their residence hall friends to play just hours before games to have a full team.
As with many club sports, competition in the team’s early years was rough. In its first year the team went 0-8, but that didn’t deter club members from coming back. In 1974 the team won its first games in Green Bay, Wisconsin, against Green Bay and Wisconsin-Parkside. The club continued to improve throughout the ’70s and, in 1976, had about 50 members and an A, B and C squad. By 1977, the club had developed a reputation for being one of the top teams in the state as the Tommies went 10-7 and finished second in the All-Minnesota tournament.
The team’s reputation on the field, however, was perhaps preceded by its reputation for rowdiness off the field. The team’s 1978 recruitment slogan was “Practice hard, play hard and party hard.” One team member said, “The parties get a little wild, but after playing rugby you’re so sore all you can think about is drinking beer.”
In 1982 the club’s rowdiness was finally too much for the university. After an incident at a Hardee’s restaurant in Iowa following a tournament, the rugby team was kicked off campus as a club sport. William Rosser, then associate dean of students, said, “As far as I’m concerned, rugby doesn’t exist. A rugby ball is like a bag of cocaine around here right now.”
But that didn’t stop St. Thomas ruggers from playing.
Though not officially recognized by the university, St. Thomas students continued playing rugby, calling themselves the St. Paul Black Sheep. They cleaned up their act enough to be reinstated as an official club sport at St. Thomas in 1989.
The reinstatement didn’t last long. By the early ’90s the team had returned to its hard-partying ways. After complaints about the team’s annual party and a failure to complete its yearly service requirement, club rugby was banished again from campus.
Once again, that didn’t stop the Black Sheep from playing off campus without university support. For the remainder of the decade, the Black Sheep continued to compete as interest in the club waned. Shortly after 2000, interest fell far enough that the club folded, and rugby effectively disappeared from St. Thomas until 2008.
It was then that students organized a new rugby club, the Blue Ox Rugby Football Club, which was accepted into the Minnesota Rugby Union. Though still not recognized officially by the university at the time, the Blue Ox picked up where the Black Sheep left off and revived rugby at St. Thomas.
In 2011, nearly 20 years after it had been banished from St. Thomas, the university reinstated the rugby club. On April 14, 2012, rugby finally returned home to O’Shaughnessy Stadium, and nearly 100 years after that Thanksgiving victory against Marquette, St. Thomas earned another “heroic” victory with a 36-0 win over Carleton.
Lacrosse: “What are those guys doing with those butterfly nets?”
When the lacrosse club started at St. Thomas in 1986, that thought might have gone through the minds of students who saw the handful of charter members playing on the lower quad. Before lacrosse’s popularity expanded in the Midwest in the early 2000s, the club at St. Thomas struggled for recognition, games and even players.
Those early years consisted of little more than a few players – often wearing improvised hockey gear – who would play pickup games around campus. By 1989 it had evolved into a squad playing regular games against teams from Minnesota and Wisconsin. In its 1989 season, St. Thomas went 0-13, prompting the team to become more serious about creating a competitive team.
The club hired its first coach, Jerry Mulligan, for the 1990 season, ushering in a new era of success. It went 19-5 in the 1990 season, and one player remarked, “It’s so fun to watch us play this year. … Last year I used to cringe when I watched us play. We were terrible.”
The team still struggled to gain acceptance around campus and struggled even more to compete with varsity teams for access to facilities, yet it did not struggle to find opponents and win games. Through the ’90s St. Thomas found regular opponents in rival St. John’s University, as well as Minnesota-Duluth. The team also regularly hosted a tournament in the fall, consistently drawing teams from Iowa, Wisconsin and even Canada.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that lacrosse became the well-recognized and nationally competitive program it is today. By 2003, the team found two constants that helped it grow: a regular conference in the Upper Midwest Lacrosse League, which included St. John’s, St. Olaf and Bethel from the MIAC, and a long-term coach in Pete Moosbrugger, who stayed with the Tommies until 2014.
The growth in the game’s popularity – combined with a more rigorous emphasis on training and competition from the team’s coaching staff – helped the Tommies receive their first invite to the national tournament in 2004.
By 2006 the team was a club lacrosse powerhouse, ranked as high as No. 5 out of nearly 100 teams nationally. The team finished the season with a 12-2 record, the best of any MIAC school and just ahead of St. John’s.
In 2009 the team began an unprecedented stretch of dominance in St. Thomas lacrosse history, winning its first national championship in 2009 and a second in 2010. The Tommies lost in the national championship game in 2011 and added another pair of championships in 2012 and 2013. The Tommies made another run at the title in 2014, but fell short in the national tournament. After four national titles and one runner-up finish, Moosbrugger stepped down as coach in October 2014, making way for long-time assistant Brian Gross to take over.
When the team takes the field again this spring, the players will be using their “butterfly nets” to shoot for another national championship – their fifth title in eight years.
Crew: rowing on the river
St. Thomas men and women trek into the frigid waters of the mighty Mississippi River in late fall and early spring to practice their sport: crew.
Started in 1962, the St. Thomas crew team is the oldest of these three clubs and also has maintained a consistent presence on campus. The team started with just a handful of men – women joined in later years – who had to travel to the Minnesota Boat Club on Raspberry Island near downtown St. Paul just to have boats and oars.
By 1968 the club had grown to about 30 members and gained enough recognition around campus for a student newspaper article to note club members who were “running, yelling and doing calisthenics and generally pushing themselves – all for the name of the St. Thomas crew club.”
Despite its early success, interest in the club had dropped by 1977 and funding had dwindled; however, two club members, Ed Weyand and Fred Otto, set out to keep the club intact. Despite receiving no funding from the university, the pair procured enough supplies to keep the club together and by the spring had helped increase club membership to 40 members.
Participation waned in the mid ’80s but by 1988 the club again returned to prominence. At the Midwest Rowing Championships the freshman men’s and women’s teams and the varsity men’s lightweight four-person team all finished in the top three in their races. The teams’ finishes in the race were perhaps overshadowed by the fact that – for the first recorded time in the club’s history – it owned and raced in its own boats.
The team must have lost its boats by 1991, however, as that year’s team qualified for the National Collegiate Rowing Championships and had to compete in a rented boat. Against all odds, competing against the best collegiate rowing teams in the country, the Tommies finished second, just 11 seconds behind Ohio State.
Once the Tommies had established themselves on the national stage, the club never found itself in a fight for survival at St. Thomas again. In 2003 the club’s lightweight four-person team placed first at the Midwest Rowing Championships, its highest finish in the competition, and in 2008 the women’s pairs team finished first at the American Collegiate Rowing Association National Championships.
Much has changed for the club in its 52 years at St. Thomas. The team now rows out of the Minneapolis Rowing Club under the Lake Street Bridge and has grown from a club of just a few men to a nationally competitive team of men and women. Despite all the changes over the years, the team still returns every year to its home, the Mississippi River, where it braves the water and the cold to train for its next race.