PHOTO: Tony Kuplic (36) celebrates with teammates
By DOUG HENNES
Tony Kuplic would be the first athlete to admit that he has had a quiet sports career at St. Thomas – cut from the soccer team as a freshman and knocked out of basketball as a sophomore after he broke his foot.
Heading into his senior year, he decided to give soccer one more try. He made the team during open tryouts but he never started, never scored and played in only eight games. He was standing on the sidelines during the second half of Saturday's NCAA Division III playoff game against St. Scholastica, with the Tommies trailing 1-0, when coach Jon Lowery told him to go in and make something happen.
Kuplic did that, and more. The 6-foot-3 forward scored the tying goal with 2:49 remaining in regulation to force overtime and then headed in the game winner with 1:57 left in double overtime to propel the Tommies' 2-1 win over the Saints and move them into a second-round game at 1 p.m. Sunday on the South Field.
They will play Luther, a 2-1 winner over St. Norbert in two overtimes. St. Thomas topped Luther 2-1 last month in Decorah.
"I just happened to be in the right places at the right times," Kuplic said of his two shots.
The flurry capped a long and often-frustrating game for eighth-rated St. Thomas (17-1-3), which defeated St. Scholastica 3-0 during the regular season. The Tommies dominated play – nine shots on goal and 17 corner kicks to the Saints' two and two – but couldn't beat goalie Sandy Davidson-Hunt. The goose egg loomed large as the second half wound to a close.
"I'm an optimistic person," Lowery said, "but I started to think a little bit that it wasn't going to go our way today. Our pressure was relentless, and I hoped it eventually would pay off."
Saints strike first
St. Scholastica (12-8-1) scored on its only shot of the first half, a penalty kick with eight minutes left. Two players collided near the St. Thomas goal and the referees called a penalty on St. Thomas. Kyle Farrar, a senior forward from London, easily beat goalie Aidan Hogan on the 12-yard kick.
The Tommies controlled the tempo throughout the second half, keeping the ball in the Saints' zone and registering five shots on goal and 13 corner kicks. One shot, a penalty kick by leading scorer and MIAC Player of the Year Mark Heydt, hit the crossbar with 8:35 remaining in the half.
Inside three minutes to go, Kuplic took a pass from junior forward Tyler Oliver, who was on the baseline, and drove it past Davidson-Hunt to tie the game. Junior midfielder Shae Bottum also had an assist on the play.
"We had so many opportunities in the second half," Kuplic said. "We just kept pressing. We knew one would go in if we kept at it."
St. Thomas' overtime fortunes grew when Farrar received a red card with :01 second remaining in the second half. The ejection left the Saints with one less player in overtime, and Lowery felt the Tommies had even more of an advantage.
Neither team mounted a threat in the first 10-minute overtime. St. Thomas intensified its attack in the second overtime, and when Heydt lofted the ball toward the Saints' goal, Kuplic was waiting in front for the game-winning shot.
"I just got my head on it – that's all," he said. "Twelve yards out and the ball went in."
Lowery marveled at Kuplic's shots but wasn't surprised. He remembered how he cut Kuplic, who starred in soccer and basketball at Trinity School at River Ridge in Eagan, as a freshman but was willing to give him another chance this year
"He had played basketball for John Tauer, and JT spoke highly of him," Lowery said. "He was so athletic, and I thought he might help us."
Help, indeed. Kuplic shrugged when asked about his late-game exploits.
"I just wanted to play," he said.
• This is St. Thomas sixth NCAA playoff trip, and the win improved the Tommies' record to 3-5 in the national tournament. They made four trips from 1985 to 1991 and qualified again in 1995. This was the program's first NCAA postseason win since 1990.
• Lowery has a five-season record of 59-25-13. The team's regular-season MIAC title this year was its first in 21 years, and the Tommies went on to win their first conference playoff title. They set a school-record 15 shutouts and have outscored opponents 33-8, including 17-2 in the first half.
• Heydt leads St. Thomas in points (23) and assists (9).