Gene's Blog: It takes a village to climb atop a national poll

Over the last three seasons, Tommie Women's Basketball has the best won-loss percentage of any conference team in any sport: a 64-5 record, .928.

Coach Ruth Sinn's team has swept the MIAC regular-season and playoff titles in each of the last two seasons. The Tommies have built a couple of impressive streaks: 20 consecutive regular-season wins, and 18 victories in a row against conference opponents.

Sinn needs one victory to reach 250 on her 12-year St. Thomas career (249-75). Her previous five teams averaged 27 wins a season.

Unbeaten St. Thomas is ranked in the top six in both the D3hoops.com and WBCA coaches' national polls.

And at least one poll – the Hero Sports computer rankings – has the Tommies No. 1 overall among 435 Division III teams. (See Hero Sports website here)

But nobody on this year's 8-0 squad is resting on past or present success. Sinn said the team has bigger goals this winter. 

"Our team mantra this year is Own the Moment. It speaks to what we try to instill in practice and games," Sinn explained. "Every time we come together, put your best foot forward and be all in. We just try to get better every day. Our focus is on ourselves: How do we take the next step, what do we control?"

The 2014-15 Tommies graduated seven of their top eight players after a 30-1 finish. With four new starters and several new role players, St. Thomas finished 26-4 last season.

Even with four returning starters, led by All-America center Kaitlin Langer, Sinn didn't let her program get complacent. Two new assistant coaches joined her staff – Ellen Wiese and A.C. Clouthier.

One of the ideas the coach looked at was her practices. Is there a way to improve efficiency?

"So many of our younger players last year didn't fully understand that to be all in, you have to be committed," Sinn explained. "We don't just show up and go through the motions.

"We adopted the St. Thomas football mentality. (Assistant coach) Brian (Silk) and I went out to watch Glenn Caruso practice. He's really good at breaking his practices up into a lot of short, efficient segments. We adopted that idea. It teaches players how to take ownership, if you are going just five minutes in that segment, how can we improve and be more efficient? When you're on the clock, the players can focus and learn to value every rep. With a set time, we know there's a beginning and an end to the drill."

Caruso is a proponent of finding and sharing good ideas, wherever they exist. He has guided St. Thomas to the fourth most wins in Division III football this decade (81 in seven seasons), with trips to the national championship game in 2012 and 2015.

"I think it's fantastic when coaches spend time learning how to grow their own program by looking at other programs in their department," he said.

"It was great to have Coach Sinn out at practice, and even better to see how she was able to implement a few concepts. I think she picked up some cultural ideas that we have in our program to benefit her team. I completely understand that our sports are different, but I believe firmly that culture is culture, regardless of sport." 

The coach added that the learning works both ways.

"We have a daughter, Anna, who is now starting to become deeply involved in basketball at various levels and enjoys it very much, and that's really opened my eyes up to paying attention and learning about the cultures of women's basketball," Caruso explained. "I'll occasionally watch a game or practice or even stop Ruth in the hall so that I can better understand the logistics and culture of that sport. I think it's great that I can work both ways."

 
 
Defensive Gains

Sinn said defense is one area her team has improved in from last season's squad that lost in the NCAA Sweet 16 round.

"If you look at our numbers across the board last season, our efficiency stood out, we ranked third or fourth in the nation in scoring points per possession but ranked 216th defensively," she said. "So this year we are really focused on is our defense, we are trying to put a lot more pressure on opponents, in the half court and full court."

St. Thomas has limited six of its eight opponents to 46 or less points. Overall, UST foes are converting just 31.4 percent of field-goal tries, average 25 turnovers, and are being outrebounded by a 42-28 margin.

On offense, the Tommies' outstanding ball movement has helped them convert 47 percent from the floor (37 percent from 3-point range), with four different players averaging at least one trey per game. St. Thomas ranks among the national leaders at the foul line (.792).

Sinn has the luxury of having five seniors and juniors to lead her team:

  • senior All-America center Kaitlin Langer (819 points, 424 rebounds in 86 career games);
  • senior guard Gabby Zehrer (13 ppg last two seasons);
  • senior point guard Paige Gernes (3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season);
  • junior forward Lauren Fischer (68 treys in 61 career games, at 45 percent clip);
  • junior guard Maddie Wolkow (54 treys in 63 career games, at 38 percent clip);

But the coach is trying to build a rotation of at least a dozen players she can call on if the situation arises.

"Last year we were so young, Gabby Zehrer was injured, and we played many freshmen in our rotation," she explained. "We had to keep Kaitlin (Langer) on the court 27-30 minutes. This year Kaitlin and the starters are only playing like 21 or 22 minutes a game."

 
Next Challenge

The Tommies will get their best test of the season when they travel to Ohio for two games in the Dec. 29-30 Bluffton tournament. In Thursday's opener, UST faces 10-0 Hope (Mich.), one of the elite teams in Division III hoops since 2000.

The Flying Dutch have won or shared 13 of their last 17 conference titles and rank with the Tommies in the top five this decade for most D-III women's hoops wins. Hope and UST met two years ago on a neutral court in the NCAA playoffs -- a hard-fought 55-47 Tommie victory.

This season Hope is averaging 89.1 ppg in a 10-0 start, including eight home victories. The balanced Dutch start two seniors, and their top six players average between 7.5 points and 14.5 points a game.

St. Thomas and Hope have one common opponent – The Toms topped UW-Stevens Point 76-65, and Hope beat the Pointers 56-50.

"We're looking forward to the opportunity to play Hope and go against their style and their defense," Sinn said. "Hope has one of the best programs in the country, and they will help us prepare for the top teams in our conference, like Bethel and Gustavus, as they run similar defense and pressure."

 

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Most Division III Women's Basketball Wins this Decade

(last seven seasons)

182, Amherst

172, DePauw

166, George Fox

165, Hope

164, St. Thomas

163, Tufts

154, Calvin

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working in his 23rd season at St. Thomas and 29th overall in the MIAC. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at ejmcgivern@stthomas.edu