By Al Schoch

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Steve Fritz has been a student, basketball player, coach and administrator at St. Thomas for more than half a century and has up-close experience of the rivalry with St. John’s.

“You knew during warmups they were going to start, they were going to roll up the baskets, take the balls,” Fritz said. “Those were fun things. There’s always been little things that are part of the rivalry and part of the charm of the whole game.”

Not that there is genuine hatred between the two Catholic-based institutions.

“I don’t think down deep. I have very good friends up there, but they know we want to win every time out, and they do, too. … There’s a dislike in losing,” he said.

That was always evident when the Tommies and Johnnies squared off on the football field. More people would flock to this game than any other on the schedule, but nowhere near what’s happened in recent years with both schools running out nationally ranked teams.

Record-setting crowds at Clemens Stadium in Collegeville and gatherings twice the capacity of O’Shaughnessy Stadium in St. Paul have drawn national attention.

“Even though it was a great rivalry, and good teams, that you could ever imagine this would happen.”

This being the first-ever football game at Target Field, which the Twins were itching to stage. The schedules finally aligned, and the game was set. Fritz and just about everyone else knew they’d sell a lot of seats, but they didn’t think it would be this many

“When we got into this, I think we were hoping maybe we’d get 20,000,” said Fritz, who noted that breaking the national attendance record for a Division III football game wasn’t the intent.

Ticket sales are past the 34,000 mark less than two days before the game. That’s nearly twice the crowd that’s currently believed to be the D-III record.

“Can you imagine that? It should be such a great experience for the kids involved and everybody else, too.”

St. John’s already has said it won’t give up a home football game at Clemens Stadium in Collegeville, site of some of the largest D-III crowds ever, most of them with St. Thomas on the other side of field.

“We’ll review a lot of things after this is over,” said Fritz. “The reality is, this has become a big event, and we are landlocked.”

He’s talking about O’Shaughnessy Stadium and the St. Thomas campus, tucked into its St. Paul neighborhood. The stadium, built in the 1940s, seats somewhere around 5,000, with portable bleachers brought in when the Johnnies comes to town. That more than doubles the capacity and strains the tight quarters of the stadium and campus.

“I don’t know what our upper limit is,” said Fritz. “If you have a regular basis where you have bigger numbers, we probably, maybe have to look at some other opportunities off-campus, too.”

That could mean the new soccer stadium in St. Paul, or the Vikings’ practice facility in Eagan. All that will have to wait until after Saturday’s Target Field date, one of Minnesota’s most anticipated football games in recent memory.

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