St. Thomas Prepares for Momentous Jump to Division I
St. Thomas, located in St. Paul, Minn., will in one year make an unprecedented jump from Division III straight to Division I as a member of the Summit League.
Such a move has been explicitly barred by the NCAA since 2010, but St. Thomas has been granted a waiver and the NCAA is reviewing the entire procedure of moving from Division III to Division I. The current rule states that Division III members looking to move to Division I must transition over a 12-year period with a stop at the Division II level in between.
An exception was made for St. Thomas because, frankly, the university didn’t ask for this. The school wasn’t in the process of moving up to Division I, but when the Tommies were kicked out of their conference, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, seemingly for dominating the competition too much, they had to go looking for options.
So you can forgive St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten, who played baseball for the school, for having to balance his excitement over his department moving to Division I with a healthy dose of melancholy over leaving the conference the school helped found 100 years ago.
“When, about 14 months ago, we learned that the (MIAC) wanted to pursue competitive parity and that did not include St. Thomas as part of the future, it certainly was disappointing for us,” Esten said. “We were a charter member of the conference, I’m an alum of St. Thomas, actually played baseball for the Tommies, so it’s a conference that I’m very fond of, (with) a lot of really great relationships and friendships with wonderful colleagues across the conference. So when that news came out, all of us were pretty disappointed.”
When it became clear that the Tommies would need a new conference home, the Summit League wasn’t the first option that came to mind, if for no other reason than existing rules suggested that it wasn’t a possibility.
But as it turns out, the Summit League, led by commissioner Tom Douple, had already done some research on St. Thomas, and felt that the school would be a good fit for the league at some point down the line, even if that point came earlier than anyone could have expected.
That level of mutual interest is how St. Thomas went from being set adrift to being accepted into the Summit League in a matter of just 14 months, which could have been 11 months had the coronavirus pandemic not pushed the agenda item on the NCAA’s docket concerning St. Thomas’ move from April to July.
“Tom and I started this conversation, and once he had reached out to the NCAA to inquire as to whether or not they’d be open to at least having and entertaining the discussion, and we learned that they would be, he and I sat down and really started to put pen to paper and get to work on what any kind of waiver or request would look like, and that moved pretty quickly, frankly,” Esten said. “In the world of reclassification, that’s pretty quickly. So here we are, about a year later, preparing to make that transition.”
St. Thomas brings with it a rich baseball history. Within the MIAC, its 36 regular-season titles are twice as many as any other program in the conference. It won the national title in 2001 and 2009 after finishing as the runner-up in 1999 and 2000.
Coach Chris Olean has been a part of a lot of that success. He was a member of the 1999 team before being drafted by the Brewers in the 17th round later that same year. After two years in the Brewers system, he returned to campus to be an assistant coach under Dennis Denning, helping the team to its two national championships. He took over for Denning in 2010 and has since guided the Tommies to seven seasons of finishing in at least a tie atop the MIAC standings.
While it was never really a goal inside the program to pursue a move up to Division II, much less Division I, it did occur to Olean along the way that there were certain Tommies teams that could have competed at a much higher level than where they were playing.
“There’s obviously certain teams in certain years where you’re like, ‘Man, these guys really turned out well,' ’’ Olean said.
If nothing else, St. Thomas will bring a unique ballpark to Division I that also serves to illustrate how sports at lower divisions of college athletics sometimes have to operate. The Tommies share the outfield playing surface of Koch Diamond with other sports, with it also serving as a football practice field and a throwing venue for track and field.
Because of the needs of those other sports, namely the size and shape of a full-size football practice field, the right field and left field fences meet in center field at a 90-degree angle rather than as part of a slight curve as you normally see with baseball fields.
As a result, the foul poles are 320 feet from home plate, while the furthest point, with “point” being used literally given the field’s shape, is 465 feet away from the hitter.
That means it’s important that St. Thomas always has a center fielder with excellent speed, but that just tracks well with how the program is built and the realities of the types of players St. Thomas has historically been able to recruit. Size and strength are at a premium among Division III-level recruits, with speed being a bit easier to come by.
In turn, speed benefits not only the Tommies’ defenders trying to cover all that ground in the outfield, but also the offense, which is then better equipped to leg out extra-base hits into the vast expanses of the outfield, in addition to doing all of the small-ball things teams like to do to manufacture runs.
“For us, recruiting speed has always been a big deal,” Olean said. “We like to be able to run and put a lot of pressure on (opponents), that’s sort of how our offense has worked for quite some time. Being as that, at Division III, sometimes you don’t get those bigger kids, so you need guys who can find barrels, get out and run, play the game the right way, play good defense, that’s a lot of how we’ve made our living for a long time.”
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With the move to Division I now official, the hard work can really begin for the baseball program. Division III operates very differently than Division I in a lot of ways, and although St. Thomas has another year to get everything sorted out, there will have to be quite a bit of roster reshaping.
The Tommies’ 2020 roster included more than 60 players, which is nearly twice the size of a Division I roster. Some of those players will naturally graduate and move off of the roster before the transition, but by Olean’s admission, it also means that frank conversations will need to be had with certain players who likely won’t have a prominent role after the jump.
“When we were talking with our team, I think the biggest thing we tried to be is just blatantly honest,” Olean said. “There’s a handful of guys on our roster that were recruited to be Division III athletes, and with the move to Division I, potentially during their four-year career, we just needed to be up front with them and just say, ‘This is where we have you.’ We anticipate the level of player coming in probably improving, and for some of those guys, we offered to help them find different schools if this is not what they signed up for and things like that, but obviously, none of that was official until (the reclassification) was official.”
Division III also doesn’t award athletic scholarships, which goes hand in hand with having such large rosters. That will obviously change when St. Thomas moves up. There are a handful of questions to be addressed there at both the administrative and coaching levels.
How many scholarships will the athletic department budget for, up to the allowable 11.7? How many of those scholarships will be used on currently-rostered players making the move with St. Thomas? Is it more prudent to simply use those scholarships as a tool to target Division I-level recruits who wouldn’t have considered St. Thomas had it not been for reclassification?
“Internally, I know we’re still working through the specifics of what our scholarship number will be and what the plan will be and where our ultimate number will be. That’s all kind of still up in the air,” Olean said. “The general way we’re thinking about it is, we don’t feel, (with) whatever we have, we can just all of the sudden go get all incoming players. We have some guys on the team that we think will absolutely help us in the Summit League once we get there and be big parts of it, especially in those first couple of years, that should be rewarded for that.”
Most immediately, St. Thomas will have to go about finishing up its time as a member of Division III and the MIAC.
Certainly, there is something to be said for winning a championship in your last season as a member of the conference. Having those bragging rights into perpetuity would be pretty nice. But Olean also sees having a successful send-off season in the MIAC in 2021 as a stepping stone to joining the Summit League.
“For me, I can tell you, having been in that conference for a long time, it’s going to be a big point of emphasis for us to compete and compete well this year,” Olean said. “We have a very good conference with good rivals that are putting money and resources into baseball. We need to worry about that first.”
For one more year, St. Thomas will be the hunted in a league that apparently got tired of playing the role of hunter, but that dynamic will change come 2022.
“The part that is going to be nice for us is that instead of being the team that is, in a lot of years, chased, we get to chase somebody else now,” Olean said. “So I think it’s going to be fun to have a new target to aim for and go compete and see what we can do.”