Dusting their shoulders off
St. Thomas ups their ante heading into semis on 30-win streak
HOLLAND, Mich. -- First, they got left at the NCAA tournament altar last season, denied an at-large bid that brought a promise to make last summer and fall their hardest-working offseason ever.
But then St. Thomas opened its season Nov. 16 at Wisconsin-Stevens Point. After getting spanked 70-53 it would have been hard to convince them that not only would things turn out just fine, but that the Tommies would win their next 30 games en route to a spot in Friday’s semifinals.
“I had faith that we could win a lot more,” 6-foot senior center Sarah Smith said, “but by no means did I think that we would go undefeated from here on out and not lose a single game and feel confident in every one of those games.”
They’re confident now.
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“It’s so exciting, it doesn’t even feel real,” said sophomore forward Taylor Young, the team’s leading scorer. “Everywhere we go we’re like, this is so cool.”
The Tommies (30-1) take on Illinois Wesleyan (26-5) in the national semifinals Friday. The other match pits the nation’s only remaining unbeaten teams, defending-champion Amherst and George Fox, both 31-0.
It’s been quite a process for St. Thomas, which is back in the semifinals for the first time since it finished third in 2000. The school won it all in 1991 and finished third in 1995 and 1996.
But after last year, when the Tommies ended their season with a loss to Concordia in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship game to finish 20-7, “We were a little angry about it and I think that made everyone work harder,” Smith said.
“It wasn’t a chip on our shoulder, but we needed to make sure that we took care of it last year. We knew last year we weren’t getting a bid. We had hope, obviously, but we knew weren’t going to get it.”
Seventh-year coach Ruth Sinn gathered her team, first to let them know they’d been denied a bid and then to talk about what they were going to do about it.
“We had a 20-win season. The NCAA did not give us an invite to the tournament,” Sinn said. “We had a good body of work. But we had a couple of sub-.500 teams. And so we collectively sat in that locker room and talked about what we could do to empower ourselves and take control. We don’t ever want to be in this position again where we have to rely on someone else.
“Well, 30 games later I think they took the control.”
For example, “We made it a requirement to come to 7 a.m. [offseason] lifting,” said Young, who scored a game-high 25 points – 21 points after halftime -- in UST’s 83-72 overtime victory against Calvin to advance to the semifinals. “Our conditioning was a lot harder. It was commitment from preseason on.”
But it was more than just working hard. Sinn took her team on a trip to Italy, where it had six practices and played two games – one got canceled – and won them both. But it wasn’t the sites of Rome that she enjoyed the most.
“The personal favorite part of my trip was watching the girls interact with each other,” Sinn said. “It didn’t matter if they were seniors to be or if they were freshmen who were going to be sophomores. It really brought this team closer … They really started developing trusts and bonds and relationships.”
Everything seemed great, until that trip to Stevens Point.
“I was really flustered after that game,” Young admitted.
“We went into that game thinking we had a good chance,” Smith said. “They’re nationally ranked, we can put ourselves on the map and let people know that we’ve changed this year and we’re ready to do it. And we came out and we were nervous and we were throwing the ball away and we weren’t ourselves at all.
“It definitely showed us we weren’t at the level we needed to be and we needed take another step.”
And so they did. Since the MIAC has 12 teams, 22 of UST’s regular-season games were in conference. Stevens Point was a really tough non-conference opener.
“We put them on our schedule for a reason,” Sinn said. “We wanted to find out where’s the bar. If we had high goals, we needed to know where we needed to get to.”
She said the Tommies had to re-focus “playing to ourselves. We didn’t have to make the great plays. Just be us.”
“Defensively we’re a very strong team. We’re long, we’re athletic and we contest. Teams don’t get a lot of easy shot opportunities that we’re going to give. We rebound well and we run.”
And they do all of it pretty well.
“This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Smith said with a big smile. “It’s our spring break right now and I think everyone should be jealous of us. All of our friends are out on the beach, but I’d way rather be stuck in this gym. I think it’s great.”
Spring break in Holland.
“This is when it counts the most,” Sinn said. “We define excellence as being at your best when it counts the most.”
Luckily for the Tommies, that’s not in the season opener.