Does playing a tougher non-conference schedule yield benefits when the conference season starts?
History says yes. (The NCAA playoff selection committees give it a big thumbs up, too.)
St. Thomas Softball and Baseball will soon find out if that theory will prove correct for them in 2018.
In one metric for toughest schedule -- combined winning percentage of teams already played -- both Tommie diamond teams sit third (baseball) and eighth (softball) nationally in NCAA Division III out of 350-plus schools.
For comparison, only four other MIAC teams' schedules to date rank in the top 90 of their respective sports: St. Catherine softball, Gustavus baseball, and St. Mary's baseball and softball.
Coach John Tschida's Tommie softball team will likely play 13 of its 40 regular-season games against programs that made the NCAA playoffs, won or shared their conference title, or reached 30 victories in 2017. None of those tests will come on their home diamond, either.
So far the Toms are 4-4 against current or previously top-25 ranked teams in their 10-4 start.
In baseball, Coach Chris Olean's Tommies are scheduled to play 16 of their 40 regular-season games against programs that made the NCAA playoffs, won or shared their conference title. or reached 30 victories in 2017. Only two of those are scheduled on UST's home diamond, too.
St. Thomas is the lone Division III team so far with two wins against top-five ranked teams: 3-0 over No. 2-UW-Whitewater, and a split with Concordia-Chicago (3-1 win, 7-1 loss). It was Whitewater's first shutout loss in 57 games. Concordia-Chicago (14-4) recently pushed Division I Illinois to the brink in Champaign. That game was tied 6-6 late before the Illini won 9-6.
Softball Finds a Way
After a 1-3 start, the No. 14-ranked Tommies have won nine of their last 10 games. They were down to their last out last Thursday in their spring-break finale when Rachel Suter slugged a two-out, two run single in the seventh inning for the go-ahead runs in a 3-2 win. That victory capped a 7-1 trip to Florida, and let the Toms improve to a combined 23-2 in their last three spring trips.
With another younger team with just one senior starter, Tschida and Co. are chasing an MIAC championship again after winning 12 in the last 14 seasons. They are scheduled to open conference play Thursday evening indoors in Plymouth with a doubleheader against Bethel.
UST's prime challenge? For the second year in a row, pitching is a work in progress for UST. Staff ace Kierstin Anderson-Glass was lights out on the mound as a freshman in 2016, but she's still recovering from a nasty concussion. Sophomore Hayley Dunning has improved dramatically since her freshman year in 2017 when she worked just 10.1 innings on varsity. This year against tough opposition, Dunning has allowed just one home run in 53 innings, and has won her last seven starts en route to a 7-1 record.
Three has been a magic number for St. Thomas: The Toms are 10-1 so far -- and went 36-5 last season -- in games when they score three or more runs.
Among Tschida's positives:
- A lineup that returned seven of nine position players from a 37-11 team that tied for ninth in the country.
- Junior Chase Shortly has 21 hits, seven walks and 21 runs in 14 games with an MIAC-best .500 batting average.
- Junior Jenna Beeso brings a 15-game hitting streak into April, and is second in the league with a .488 batting average.
- Junior Melissa Barry, who has 107 hits in 98 career games, has only struck out three times in her 212 plate appearances over the last two seasons.
- Sophomore Elise Barnes has a hit, walk or RBI in 49 of her last 50 games, plus 28 multi-hit games in her two college seasons.
- Junior Dana Connelly has 89 hits and 14 walks in 97 career games.
- In MIAC stats, Tommie batters rank first in fewest strikeouts per game, and tied for second in batting average.
- The Toms are batting .381 with pinch hitters (8-for-21) while opponents are .111 (1-for-9) in the same situations.
Baseball Bounces Back
St. Thomas Baseball comes into April with a 5-7 record after an odd 1-6 start. They had three doubleheaders postponed this week due to snow and cold. They are hoping they can play again next Tuesday at St. Mary's.
Olean's Tommies were slow to get their offense untracked, although playing 12 opponents with a combined 107-51 record had something to do with that. The Toms scored just 13 runs and batted only .218 in their 1-6 start. In the last five games, however, they have a 4-1 record, and have scored 34 runs while hitting .321.
Among Olean's positives:
- A lineup that returned eight of 10 position players and three All-Region starting pitchers from a 29-18 team that shared the MIAC championship and won four postseason games.
- The Toms lead the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio (after finishing third last season), at 4.71 Ks per walk issued. Their pitchers have chalked up 113 strikeouts in 97 innings
- Tommie starters have recorded a 2.07 earned-run average thus far. All-Region returners Ryan Zimmerman, Henry DeCaster and Drew Molin have a combined 1.99 ERA and 60 Ks in 50 innings.
- Sophomore closer Shaun Falbo has not allowed a base runner and has nine strikeouts in his four appearances (6.1 innings), and has recorded two saves with 4.1 shutout innings against top-five ranked Whitewater and Concordia-Chicago. Falbo has allowed just two hits and no runs in 14 career appearances -- opponents are batting .003 against him (2-for-62).
- Senior Hunter Hart homered three times last week in Florida, and the Toms improved to 8-0 in games on his career when he has a round tripper.
- Senior shortstop Jake Smith is closing in on a school career record for triples. A four-year starter, Smith has played in 135 career games and has reached base 224 times via hit, walk or HBP: 162 hits, 46 walks and 16 hit by pitch.
- Senior second baseman Zach Gottfredsen has 143 hits and 29 walks in 134 career games, including 42 multi-hit games.
- Junior shortstop Rock Cates is batting .444 with eight hits and four RBI in six games.
- UST had received a hit from 18 different players thus far in 12 games.
- The Toms are batting .412 with pinch hitters (7-for-17) while opponents are .000 (0-for-3) in the same situations.
The Tommies' remaining schedule is unbalanced, and the poor weather and subsequent make-ups games make it even more condensed. St. Thomas could play 12 consecutive games on campus from April 14-24 (including two games as visiting team against Macalester), then play its final 11 regular-season games out of St. Paul.
In April 2017, Tommie Baseball posted a 15-3 record. Can they go on another April roll? The schedule won't be easy, but the Toms have seen good pitching and oppostion most of this season.
With a condensed schedule and the current layoff, mental toughness will be as important as talent and experience if Olean's guys hope to play to their potential in 2018.
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@example.com