Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – When Glenn Caruso took over as St. Thomas football coach four years ago, he expected to have success. Every coach does, but I think even he is surprised at what his program has accomplished since he took the reins.
In four seasons with the Tommies, Caruso has a 43-7 record. That includes a 25-2 record at home and a 7-3 mark in the postseason. Before Caruso came to the St. Thomas campus, the word “postseason” wasn’t in the football team’s vocabulary.
All Caruso has done in four years is completely change the mindset and the expectations of the program. St. Thomas has won two straight MIAC titles, going undefeated in conference play in each of the last two years. The Tommies won 13 games last year, setting a school record. They’ve also won 36 games over the last three seasons, which is third in Division III.
The catch: The Tommies are still searching for that elusive national championship. They were shutout for the only time all season in a 20-0 loss to UW-Whitewater in the NCAA Division III semifinals last year. Whitewater won its second straight national title in its second straight undefeated season.
So while they’ve accomplished a lot in Caruso’s four years, they don’t have what they want: A national title.
The Tommies enter the 2012 season ranked in the top 10 in every Division III preseason poll, but they’ve also graduated a ton of talent. Dakota Tracy, Fritz Waldvogel and Colin Tobin are all gone from the offense. Tony Danna and Danny Kane are gone from the defense.
So what’s left: A whole group of talent that now has a chance to prove itself between the lines on Saturdays.
“Our guys have worked tirelessly to make sure they’re in a good situation,” Caruso said. “What carries over with success is the fact that we had a good spring football camp.”
The Tommies’ defensive unit brings back a load of experience with Chinni Oji, Jack Gavin, Harry Pitera, Ryan Dietz and Tyler Erstad back. St. Thomas will need a new crop of defensive linemen to step up and provide pressure up front. It’s important to note that St. Thomas was one of the top teams in the nation last year in rushing defense as well as scoring defense. Caruso said his defensive line group is the deepest it’s been since he’s been coaching at St. Thomas.
St. Thomas had a luxury last year in that many of its 13 victories were lopsided, meaning that second and third units got playing time in the second half of games. The Tommies will have a new quarterback under center, and it will be Matt O’Connell.
Ryan Toney is back at running back, as is Aaron Terrell-Byrd. Look for freshman Kendrick Brewster out of Cretin-Derham Hall to also have an impact at running back.
Dan Noehring and Dan Ferrazzo are back at wide receiver to provide experience. Don’t be surprised if another name with virtually the same skill set as Waldvogel out of St. Thomas Academy emerges. Hootie Hubbell, one of metro’s top scoring threats for the Cadets last season, is a combination running back/wide receiver on the St. Thomas roster this year.
“Everyone is asking about our wide receivers, and it’s as strong a corps as we’ve ever had. You don’t replace Fritz with another guy, you replace the touches,” Caruso. “It’s been very enjoyable to see some of the other guys come in and watch them grow.”
St. Thomas brings back a total of 17 players from last year’s roster who have starting or playing experience. That number includes eight players who were first or second team All-MIAC selections. The Tommies lost a total of seven players from offense, defense and special teams.
“We lost about seven starters on all three sides. They were key guys,” Caruso said. “Those roles have been filled by other guys now.”
Some might call it rebuilding, but I have a feeling it’ll be more like reloading for the Tommies this year. After two straight championship seasons, the last thing St. Thomas wants to do is take the foot off the gas.
St. Thomas was unanimously picked by other MIAC schools to win the conference for a third straight year. They received eight of nine possible first-place votes in the preseason coach’s poll, and a coach cannot vote for their own team.
In looking at the schedule, the Tommies open the season at 3:10 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, at UW-Eau Claire in what promises to be a tough opponent. St. Thomas opens the home season Sept. 8 against UW-River Falls, and then the fun begins with the conference schedule.
It’s usually saved for Halloween weekend, but the Tommie/Johnnie rivalry game will open the MIAC slate as the Tommies travel to Collegeville Sept. 15.
“I really don’t care when it happens but it’s a great rivalry,” Caruso said. “We can’t look past other games, but everyone knows where it is on the schedule. It’s always a phenomenal environment, and it’s a great thing for college football.”
Other key games include Homecoming, which is Oct. 13 against Bethel. St. Thomas also travels to Concordia-Moorhead Nov. 3, which is always a tough match-up. The Tommies final regular season home game is Nov. 10 against St. Olaf, where they hope to be clinching their third straight MIAC championship.
St. Thomas football is back on WCCO Radio this fall as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will provide color commentary at every game. The Tommies Blog will also follow the team throughout the season, previewing every game and providing insights throughout the season.