Friday marks the 107th day of the St. Thomas Men's Soccer season, day 34 of the postseason.
Of 410 Division III men's soccer teams, being among the last four still alive has produced a lively chaos for Jon Lowery and his players. As they await Friday's 10 a.m. national semifinal game against Tufts (Mass.), they're trying to enjoy the moment while not sweating the small stuff.
Let's help Lowery with one thing that fell to the bottom of his to-do list: creating a 2016 team slogan.
You absolutely earn your own slogan when you make school history with the first solo conference title in 25 years; you're the first conference soccer team to still be playing in December; you record a school-record 16 shutouts; you post a 6-0 postseason record, and go unbeaten in nine overtime games (6-0-3); and you do it with enough clutch contributors to fill a 17-seat Mulvahill family van. So here goes:
2016 Tommie Men's Soccer: Everything's Possible.
1. Take the head coach: Five years ago, Jon Lowery left a full-time job at nearby Hamline University to come to St. Thomas for what was then a part-time job at UST. He arrived in 2011 believing that "Everything's Possible.
2. Take one of the team leaders, the conference MVP: Mark Heydt has a wonderful blend of smarts, poise and intensity. He brings the Kirby Puckett Game-6 mentality. He won't hestitate to carry the team on his back, figuratively or literally, even with his modest 5-foot-9, 140-pound frame. Oh, yes, and on Thursday he was named a first-team All-America. He personifies "Everything's Possible."
3. Take one of the team's all-conference defenders: Johnny Mulvahill was the youngest of Jim and Jean Mulvahill's four kids growing up in the Twin Cities' western suburbs. As Johnny entered high school and his parents stared down their impending empty-nest days, they did what many families do to fill a void: they got a golden retriever.
Then the Mulvahills did what practically no family has ever done: they adopted 14 kids from China. Two more kids are set to join to join the Multiple Mulvahills next month. That's sure to further challenge their 17-seat Mercedes van that Jim told Catholic Spirit reporter Dave Hrbacek was like "a FedEx truck with windows."
Johnny finally got the younger sister he always wanted, 10 younger sisters, in fact. Their dog doesn't cheer up a storm at Tommie soccer games, but these 14 siblings do. In any language, Johnny understands that "Everything's Possible."
4. Take the team's newest scoring weapon: The story of super-sub senior Tony Kuplic (pronounced CUP-lick) is like Rudy meets Forrest Gump. You've heard of the Heimlich Maneuver to relieve choking victims? Instead of restoring breathing, you get the reverse with the Kuplic Maneuver: his uncanny late-game goal scoring takes your breath away.
A Mechanical Engineering major with a 3.90 gpa, Kuplic at age 18 delayed college for a mission trip to Grenada, where he taught eighth graders. Cut from St. Thomas tryouts as a freshman, he later played one season for UST basketball, getting brief court time at the end of a few varsity games. Kuplic tried out again this fall for soccer, made the team, then didn't play in 11 of the first 13 games. Needing to clear roster names to fit onto one sheet for the NCAA playoffs, the Toms' sports information director nearly excluded Tony since he took no shots and saw the field in only eight regular-season games. Because he's a senior, Kuplic was saved. Now because of his play, the season was saved.
Thus far in four NCAA games, Tony has taken 12 shots... and scored his first five collegiate goals. The first came in the 88th minute to tie St. Scholastica, and he's added four more playoff goals, including two OT game winners.
Lowery apparently had the unhearalded Kuplic stashed away in the FPP, the Fitness Protection Program. Hey, Everything's Possible.
5. Take the Tommies' MIAC soccer opponents: In a cool gesture, some rival conference teams put together a short YouTube video to wish St. Thomas good luck. You can watch it here. We knew MIAC soccer could generate a few yellow cards... but who saw these guys playing the mellow card? These additions to the Purple bandwagon prove that Everything's Possible.
One Fun Season
The Toms opened the NCAA playoffs at home and took a 16-1-3 record against St. Scholastica in round one, a team it beat 3-0 a couple of weeks earlier. After the Saints' first-half penalty-kick goal put the Toms in a 1-0 hole, the tying goal was elusive as the final minutes slipped off the clock.
"We had one foot in the grave," Lowery told a D3Soccer.com columnist, "and maybe another arm in there, too, so I sent Kuplic in and told him to make something happen."
Wearing soccer jersey No. 36, Kuplic used a header to tie the game with under three minutes left, and he scored the game winner moments later in overtime. He added an insurance goal the next day in a 2-0 defeat of Luther.
The next day in the national quarterfinals against Redlands, UST trailed 2-0 with 20 minutes to go before Kuplic scored and Shae Bottum later converted a penalty kick in the 79th minute. Overtime ensured, and Kuplic scored again to catapult the Tommies to the Salem, Va., Final Four, just the second conference men's soccer team to reach a national semifinal round.
Lowery said his team has a good postseason temperament.
"We're not going to change a lot," he said. "I think we learned a lot in the Chicago sectional about that extra level of intensity that's brought to these games. Benedictine set an early tone that we had to match. Redlands was somewhat similar. We want to improve all phases of our game, but just matching that level of intensity is something that we are going to be ready for.
"We're looking forward to better conditions, Chicago was really windy and it was a grass field that was hard to play on. Now we're back on turf in Salem with hopefully better weather."
The seeds for the Tommies' 2016 success were planted in recent seasons. Lowery's guys traveled to region-power Loras in 2014 and ended the Duhawks' 30-game home unbeaten streak with a 2-1 win.
They played Loras at home in 2015 and beat them again. Last year's Tommies won eight road games, including a 1-0 overtime victory at third-seed Carleton in the conference playoffs. St. Thomas came into that game with a 10-season, 13-game winless streak against the Knights (0-11-2), including an 0-6 all-time mark in the conference playoffs.
Two years ago, St. Thomas went 9-8-2, outscored foes just 32-27, and lost 2-0 in its only playoff game, while Tufts finished 16-2-4, outscored opponents 49-13, and won the NCAA championship.
This season, the Toms have a 40-11 scoring margin in a 20-1-3 start -- three of the 11 goals allowed came via penalty kicks -- while Tufts has a misleading 13-5-2 record with a 31-16 scoring edge. Tufts started 0-2-1 with one of its best players out, and two recent losses were 2-1 decisions against conference rival Brandeis, which also is in Salem for the Final Four.
The Toms understand what they're facing on Friday.
"Tufts is a very good team," Heydt said. "Coach Lowery has been telling us they have a really good spine, in the center, midfielders, center backs and forwards. We just need to take this one game at a time, focus on what we can do, execute, and the pieces will fall into place."
Lowery has a unique senior class that this season has helped bring a missing link: confidence.
"Mark Heydt is dynamic, he's responsible defensively, an absolute weapon on restarts," Lowery said. "He's an experienced guy, a vocal leader, and somebody that puts everything he has into the cause. He's just a talented and very dependable leader for us.
"Grant Larson at goalie -- we've gone with Aidan Hogan in the postseason. But Grant did a great job during the regular season, and we feel like we have two number ones. Grant's a great person, great character guy.
"Shane Marshall and Johnny Mulvahill – I can't say enough about those two, they've really kind of driven this thing along over the last four years. They really bought in during the early days when it was kind of an idea and a vision. They've been a part of every building block that we've had, so I'm happy for them for the maturity and to see the outcome of what they've given us. Mark, already mentioned, all three of those guys are on the back line so it's special for them to lead our defensive efforts.
"Amos Nash, he's been with us after transferring from Gonzaga after a year there, he's often battled some physical limitations but when he can go, he really drives our midfield. Hopefully he's going to get out there this weekend.
"We added Tony Kuplic late, walk-on senior, unbelievable character, unbelievable athlete and just a solid addition to what we are trying to do here."
Lowery has been involved in two Division I Final Fours while an assistant coach at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons won the national title in 2007 but lost 1-0 in the semifinals in 2008.
The coach said the Tommies have the right mix of senior leadership, depth and balance to reach this point of the national tournament.
"I think the key is we're balanced," he said. "I think my early years here we were a little heavy offensively, a little limited defensively – that cost us at times, there were times it was great and we scored a lot of goals, but the balance wasn't there.
"I think what the seniors have given us -- and the veteran junior players like Shae Bottum, Connor Young, Pierce Erickson and Christian Elliehausen -- they really understand the phases of our game. They've all worked hard defensively so that we can attack, and the goalkeeping has been dependable – better than it has been ever. The recipe is balance, and I think balance if you look across the board is what is moving teams on in this tournament."
"It's been a pretty crazy run," Heydt said. "Twice our season was three or four minutes away from being over, and then in our last game we were down by two goals with 20 minutes to go.
"It really shows our team's resolve and willingness to fight for each other. We just work really hard for each other, and honestly, we enjoy spending time together so much we don't want that time to come to an end."
Added Lowery, "I think our celebration after beating Redlands -- and it's something that makes this team special -- we were just excited to spend two more weeks together and train and play another game. Nobody really talked about national semifinals, it's just an chance to get better and spend time together, and enjoy an opportunity the guys have worked hard for."
If Jon Lowery believes in good karma, he'll be pleased to know that two coaching colleagues named John won their first St. Thomas NCAA championships in Salem -- John Tschida with 2004 softball, and John Tauer with 2016 men's basketball.
Why not? With this grounded team in this over-the-top season, Everything's Possible.
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 [email protected]