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Gene's Blog: Sour moments make the Shining moments even sweeter

Gene's Blog: Sour moments make the Shining moments even sweeter

Everyone loves a comeback story.

Take Virginia's 2018-19 NCAA championship in men's hoops. The Cavaliers came to the Twin Cities with a compelling back story, then pulled off exciting victories over Auburn and Texas Tech. 

The Cavalier program picked itself off the mat from an unprecedented first-round NCAA tournament loss in March 2018. That Virginia team holds the dubious tag as the tournament's first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16. It had a 31-2 record when it was outscored 53-33 in the second half and lost 74-54 to the 24-10 Retrievers of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett earned universal respect that night. Moments after experiencing his most painful defeat as a coach, Bennett displayed admirable grace and class. He patiently answered questions, and gave full credit to the winners. He shouldered the blame, and threw no players under the bus.

Nothing came easy for this year's Virginia team during its 6-0 run to the NCAA crown, especially when it trailed by 14 points in the tournament's first game. Both Bennett and his players agreed that last season's stumble helped produce a focus and toughness at crunch time this postseason.

 

Sound Familiar?

Such dramatic turnarounds aren't limited to the fast lane of NCAA Division I. Three memorable St. Thomas teams -- Softball in 2004, and Men's Hoops in both 2011 and 2016 -- also celebrated their One Shining Moment after overcoming similar disappointment the previous season.

Is it simply a coincidence that these three St. Thomas teams won NCAA championships in the state of Virginia (in Salem)... and Virginia won its national championship in the state of Minnesota?

Tommie head coach John Tauer chuckles at the irony. He explained that he just bumped into two of Tony Bennett's relatives -- his uncle Jack and cousin Nick -- at the Final Four. Jack Bennett won two Division III basketball titles as UW-Stevens Point head coach, with Nick one of the standout players. The court at Stevens Point is named after Dick and Jack Bennett. Before Tony's dad, Dick Bennett, was a D-I head coach with the Wisconsin Badgers and Washington State, he coached future NBA star Terry Porter and current D-I head coach Brad Soderberg on the same Pointers team.

"I went to UW-Madison from 1995-2000 to get my PhD degree in Social Psychology," Tauer said. "Dick Bennett was head coach there from 1995-2000. Brad Soderberg was one of his assistants. I still have vivid memories of the job Dick Bennett did in the 1995-96 season – one of the best coaching jobs I have ever seen. 

"Those guys were always great to me – I watched a lot of practices there until my advisor gently asked me if I was there to become a social psychologist or a basketball coach. In the back of my mind, I think I knew the answer was both, but probably didn't tell her that at that moment."

 

Second Time a Charm for Hoops 

Coach Steve Fritz guided his 2008-09 Toms to a 22-0 run against league opponents and a school-record 30 wins before losing to eventual champion Washington (Mo.) in the national quarterfinals. 

That team graduated starters B.J. Viau, Lonnie Robinson and Alex McCoy. Fritz' 2009-10 team also had the challenge of having to play all 12 home games off campus in St. Paul due to construction of the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex that school year. 

Those Tommies won the league at 19-1 and took a 23-2 record and 12-game win streak into the conference playoffs. Up to No. 6 in the rankings, St. Thomas lost a low-scoring game to Carleton in the MIAC semifinals. The Purple still gained an at-large NCAA berth, but their 73-71 season-ending loss to No. 24-ranked Anderson (Ind.) on a neutral court left that team with a sour taste.

The Tommie men came into the next season with a No. 15 ranking. They tied for the conference championship at 17-3; went 15-1 at home; were ranked No. 8 in the nation; then caught fire over their final four games, led by All-America senior guard Tyler Nicolai, to win the MIAC's first national title in men's hoops.

Their 24-point win over Wooster is still tied for the largest championship-game winning margin in the D-III tournament's 45-year history.

Fritz retired as basketball coach that spring, and Tauer was elevated form his assistant role to become head coach. 

A couple of seasons later, Tauer's 2014-15 Toms were on a roll and ranked third in the nation before a disappointing loss to Northwestern-St. Paul on a neutral court to open the NCAA playoffs. Grant Shaeffer's driving layup with :06 left let the Toms regain a 70-68 lead, but a long buzzer-beating 3-point basket gave the Eagles a stunning upset -- and a spot that night on ESPN's top 10 plays. 

Welcome to March Madness: Northwestern's first NCAA tournament win in school history was produced when a guy who had missed eight of his previous nine 3-point attempts on the season found all net with a game on the line.

"There's no question that round one (tournament) games are challenging for a number of reasons," Tauer said. "We were ranked No. 3 in the nation in 2015, and had beaten the eventual NCAA champion UW-Stevens Point earlier in the season at home."

Tauer's 2015-16 team returned six of its top seven players, and survived the grind of a 23-2 regular season to reach No. 8 in the national poll. After losing at home to St. Olaf in the MIAC playoff title game, St. Thomas was determined to write a better ending that March.

Mission accomplished: Six games, six wins, including a 10-point road victory in a hostile environment over No. 1-ranked Augustana; a four-point win over No. 4 Christopher Newport; and a close title-game defeat of No. 2 Benedictine.

Starters Shaeffer, Ryan Saarela, Taylor Montero, Cortez Tillman and Ryan Boll will be remembered as one of the most balanced and unselfish teams in conference history.

"The hunger a team goes into the offseason with is critical," Tauer explained. "especially in Division III, where NCAA rules prohibit coaches from working with players in the offseason.

"Whether it's a painful loss in round one, or a loss in the title game (this year's champion UW-Oshkosh made it to the final night last year), a lot of forces can galvanize a team. Of course, having a lot of returners is key. Veterans help, motivation helps, and a few lucky bounces help. Note the different story lines if Virginia doesn't hit shots against Purdue, Auburn or Texas Tech, or perhaps if Duke defeats Michigan State."

 

Sting Fades for Softball

Tommie Softball had a different celebratory scenario when it won its 2004 NCAA championship, in Tschida's fourth season here. 

The Purple were coming off a 2003 postseason disappointment of another kind. That Tommie team finished 32-6, but lost two one-run games to Gustavus (one in 10 innings, the other shortened to six). That let 21-1 Gustavus edge the 20-2 Toms for the conference title and take the automatic berth into the NCAA postseason. The Purple didn't receive one of the few at-large berths into nationals.

That was the last season before an MIAC playoff was added. Starting in 2004, four teams compete for an automatic NCAA playoff spot. The 2003 season also was the end of a brief era where roughly 40 teams reached the national tournament instead of the 64 that advance today

"We were a good team," Tschida recalls. " Simpson (Iowa) went 31-4 and didn't get selected, either. We were right after them on the at-large list. "

Tschida's 2004 team left nothing to chance. After a 6-4 start, The Purple closed the season with 40 consecutive wins. Consider this rarity: There are just 41 female student-athletes inducted into the St. Thomas Athletic Hall of Fame. But four of those 41 played on that 2004 squad: pitcher Janet Nagle; catcher Nikki Conway; infielder Michelle Wong; and the versatile Carrie Embree. 

"Our players in 2004 were really good up and down the lineup," Tschida said. "When I pitched batting practice, our No. 1 through 9 players could all hit everything I threw at them. They were grinders, too, really put a lot of time into it, wanted to be as good as they could be. There was a lot of parity back then nationally, and you had to do everything well -- hitting, pitching, fielding."

Today, with travel softball and advanced youth development, Tschida said recruiting has changed. "There aren't too many secrets these days," he said. "Unlike in the 1990s or 2000s, most players today with great upside find their way onto everyone's radar, especially the scholarship programs. It's not impossible, but it's just harder now to find as many of those unknown, high-potential kids. We just try to find the ones who want a St. Thomas education and a St. Thomas social life along with a great softball experience."

Tschida has the rare accomplishment of winning an NCAA team championship at two different universities -- he also won in 2000 at his alma mater, St. Mary's. Bennett and Tauer would agree with his overall take on how hard it is to be a national champ:

"Every year is a different year, and you need a lot of things to fall in line," Tschida explained. "Every year, you just try to be as good as you can be, but there will always be variables you can't control. 

"To be champions, you have to be better than the variables."

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working his 25th season at St. Thomas and 31st 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 ejmcgivern@stthomas.edu