Gene's Blog: Once off the radar, now off the charts

The word is out. These days in its conference, St. Thomas Swim-Dive, to paraphrase a Will Ferrell movie character, is "Kind of a big deal."

That's not how the humble coach and his grounded athletes would describe themselves. They'd probably say something about their close-knit family culture, then head off to the library.

But when your university swim teams battle every February yet go 0-for-82 from 1955 through 2009 in pursuit of conference men's and women's team trophies, then win nine championships this decade, your sports information director is obligated to shout the news from the highest mountaintop. Or at minimum stand out on Summit Avenue and alert passers by.

Hear ye, hear ye: The St. Thomas men have won six of the last nine MIAC team championships. The women have captured three in a row.

And since Will Ferrell's college major as an undergrad at Southern Cal was, of course, Sports Information, this blog is starting to come together as crisply as a Tommie Swim-Dive MIAC title chase scripted by Coach Scott Blanchard.


Sweet Sweep

Last weekend at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center, Tommie teams swept to wins for both genders for the third year in a row.

Our men topped runner-up Gustavus by 148 points, with 12 swim and two diving titles, while the women outscored the Gusties by 110 points, with had 11 firsts and nine runner-up places.

All 17 male swimmers that St. Thomas was allowed to enter scored points, and 11 made All-MIAC with a top-three finish individually or on relays. Diver Andrew Grabowski made it an even dozen as All-MIAC.

All 17 female swimmers that St. Thomas was allowed to enter scored points, and 11 made All-MIAC with a top-three finish individually or on relays. Diver Kellie Pruitt made it an even dozen as All-MIAC.

It was a championship four-peat for the men. The last time a St. Thomas swim-dive team won the conference title all four years of its era, Joe DiMaggio was about to embark on a 56-game hitting streak, Nat King Cole was atop the charts, and Billy Graham was a local college president at Northwestern.

On the men's side, seniors Bailey Biwer and Andrew Grabowski were named MIAC Swimmer and Diver of the Year. Junior Katelyn Strauss received the conference Swimmer of the Year award for the women.

Biwer and Warren Melton were members of the winning MIAC 800-meter relay four years in a row. An Eau Claire native, Biwer has been part of 17 MIAC championships with five seconds on relay and individual races. He was a repeat champ in both the 500 free and 100 fly. His winning 100 fly time of 48.29 currently ranks fourth in Division III.

Grabowski, who hails from the Chicago suburbs, was victorious on the three-meter board all four years of his career. He also had a 3-for-4 winning record on one-meter on his MIAC championship resume.

Melton has been another cornerstone. The Rock Falls, Ill., native contributed to 12 MIAC championships on relays or individual events, with four seconds, in his four seasons.

Strauss has been a part of 15 MIAC relay/individual crowns so far in her three seasons, including a 3-for-3 winning run in the 200 fly.

Junior Tom Negaard has already been a part of nine relay/individual crowns in his three seasons, with five other top-three placings.

Senior Nicole Herrli won the 200 breaststroke for the third year in a row. Her sophomore brother, Joe, had top-three swims on the men's side, too. Besides both competing in high school swimming for the Chatfield (Minn.) Gophers, these siblings share something else cool, since both are Biochemistry majors.

Joe Herrli has compiled a 3.98 grade-point average... and is the academic slacker of the pair compared to Nicole's 3.99. The answer: Future candidates for the game show Jeopardy. The question: Who are Nicole and Joe Herrli?



The Tommies were fearless over the last two days of the three-day meet. The men turned a 29-point lead to start Friday into a 95-point cushion by Friday night. The women's 15-point lead after Thursday ballooned to 129 by Friday night.

"Gustavus really came out firing on the first day, and our men's relay disqualification cost us some points," Blanchard said. "But we really came together as a family on the second and third day. We were so solid, and our depth really helped us pull away."

Blanchard's men had eight seniors leading the push -- Biwer, Melton, Grabowski, Brady Anderson, Charles Hynes, Alex Robb, Michael Vandevoorde and Matthew Kearney.

"Gustavus really had a strong performance in this meet," the coach explained. "For our men, the senior class really help us pull together and get another team title."

The Tommie women's strength is with its junior class, and nine Toms from the Class of 2019 scored in the meet. "We didn't have as many seniors on the women's side (Nicole Herrli and Tiana Molitor), but the ones we had we integral in keeping the women's team focused," Blanchard said.

The women didn't have the same security blanket it did from 2014-17. Nine-time All-America Emma Paulson -- who was a part of 17 MIAC individual/relay victories in her three seasons -- graduated last May.

"It was pretty exciting when you realize that our women graduated a national champion in Emma Paulson, yet were able to have such a tremendous season," Blanchard said. "The other athletes just stepped in and provided that leadership."


Waiting Game

It's easy to root for college swimmers. The top athletes start practice in September and are still competing at nationals in late March. That seven-month grind is unique. Swimmers are either in the pool for 6:30 a.m. workouts, or around for the two-hour training shift after classes in late afternoon.

In an age of more instant gratification, this sport requires patience and a leap of faith. You train, train and train some more, and at season's end, eventually you taper, rest and discover how fast you are.

The Tommies will wait until Sunday for final results of remaining Division III conference meets to see if some of their relays can make it into nationals. They currently have eight relays seeded in the top 17.

The bar has been raised at Anderson Pool, and Blanchard is busy in recruiting searching for the next Biwer, or perhaps even a Paulson.

"We have a bright future," the coach said. "We had some nice freshmen performances all season."

Besides a nice future, the Toms are building a nice Swim-Dive tradition. They already have one of the best traveling trophies, the Margate Cream Cheese Trophy, shared with Carleton. And they probably have the coolest celebratory gesture by a sports team on campus.

When they hit the awards podium, St. Thomas swimmers hold up one hand to their teammates and fans and give a claw sign. It's sort of like their secret handshake.

Claw: Continuous Laps All Winter? The exact origin remains a mystery.

But even if the Claw back story stays a secret, St. Thomas' MIAC team successes are no longer off the radar. Don't ask them, but their SID can attest: They're kind of a big deal again this February.


Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working his 24th season at St. Thomas and 30th overall in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the MIAC and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at [email protected]