MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The pieces seemingly fell into place last Saturday as the St. Thomas football team put itself into position for an at-large NCAA berth. But instead of deciding its own fate, the Tommies had to leave it in the hands of a third party.
The NCAA Division III selection show for the football playoffs was Sunday night. St. Thomas, ranked all season in the top 20, was up for one of the few at-large spots available. The Tommies liked their chances after beating St. Olaf 45-22 and having Bethel knock off St. John’s 28-7 to finish off its season 10-0. That put St. Thomas in a tie for second in the MIAC.
St. Thomas coaches and players waited, waited and waited some more, but never saw their name on the show. Their season was over at 8-2, as were the football careers for 21 seniors. It was a class that finished 47-5, won three MIAC titles and appeared in three NCAA Playoffs. Most disappointing is the fact that the Tommies didn’t get an opportunity they craved since workouts started: Competing for a national title after getting so close last year.
Coach Glenn Caruso said when the NCAA gave at-large bids to other 8-2 schools like Pacific Lutheran and St. John Fisher, he knew his team’s chances got a lot slimmer.
“The kids were floored. The locker room was as quiet as church,” Caruso said. “It was a combination of heartbreak and shock. That’s really a testament to the kids because it means something to them.”
They players didn’t take waste time feeling sorry for themselves. Caruso said returning players were back at work by Wednesday with conditioning and work in the weight room.
It’s one of the few times a team has its season end with a victory and they’re not celebrating a championship.
“The last month of the season was really nice with the way the kids approached it. We had pretty dominating wins over Concordia and St. Olaf.”
It was basically four weeks of playoff games for the Tommies after losing at Bethel 28-21. They knew they had to win out to have any chance at consideration for a playoff berth.
St. Thomas finished with a dominating performance with a victory last Saturday over the Oles. The Tommies, in sloppy weather and field conditions, piled up 533 yards of total offense. Quarterback Alex Fenske threw for 353 yards and two touchdowns.
Jack Kaiser and Nick Waldvogel emerged as the team’s two top running backs the last half of the season. Kaiser ran for 74 yards and three touchdowns, and Waldvogel ran for 38 yards and a score in last Saturday’s win.
Fenske was an admirable fill in for the injured Matt O’Connell, who is expected to make a complete recovery from a broken leg/ankle and be back next season.
“He put up great numbers on a day that was wet and on a field that was disgusting,” Caruso said of Fenske. “He’s grown tremendously. His growth between year one and year two is probably as big as any we’ve had.”
The St. Thomas defense was equally as impressive Saturday, not letting the Oles get positive rushing yardage on the day after five sacks on St. Olaf quarterback Nate Penz.
The Tommies will now be watching from the sidelines as 32 other teams compete for the national title. The only MIAC team to earn a berth is Bethel. The Royals will likely have home field advantage for most of the playoffs as long as they win, and they’ll face St. Scholastica on Saturday.
Caruso said despite the two regular season losses in close games, he and his team never lost faith they they might get a bid with the way the season finished. He said not getting a bid was both disappointing and something to build on.
“We know the negatives of not getting in – it’s over and we’re obviously not playing football anymore,” Caruso said. “I’ve always taught the guys that we work as hard as we can and think as positive as we can. We felt pretty good about getting a bid and we were watching the show hoping to get a bid. We’re getting right back to work.”
St. Thomas, ranked No. 16 to finish the season, wasn’t the only ranked team to miss out on an at-large bid. UW-Oshkosh, ranked No. 11, lost two regular season games and was also denied a playoff bid.
At the end of the day, nine points separated St. Thomas from a playoff berth.