Two Years After St. Thomas’ Departure, the MIAC Is Flourishing
The Gustavus Adolphus women added the MIAC’s 46th team national championship, in ice hockey. Photo courtesy of Gustavus Athletics

Two Years After St. Thomas’ Departure, the MIAC Is Flourishing

Most MIAC observers believe the conference has become more competitive and balanced without the Tommies.

Each May, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), the area’s premier Division III league, awards All-Sports trophies to its best overall men’s and women’s programs. It’s a big deal among the MIAC’s most competitive schools, and both 2022 winners repeated this year – St. John’s on the men’s side, and Gustavus Adolphus on the women’s. The Gusties women added the MIAC’s 46th team national championship, in ice hockey.

The list of past All-Sports winners features lots of repeat champions, none more dominant than the university that departed the conference amid controversy two years ago – St. Thomas, which won a record 12 consecutive titles in each gender from 2008-19 before moving up to Division I in 2021. (Trophies weren’t awarded in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic.)

Without the Tommies, most MIAC observers believe the conference has become more competitive and balanced. That’s exactly what its Presidents Council and athletic administrators hoped for once the Tommies moved on.

Nothing’s different in football, where everyone’s still chasing St. John’s and Bethel, or in men’s tennis, where Gustavus won its 32nd consecutive MIAC regular-season title. But new champions and contenders emerged in other sports.

Last winter Carleton College won the men’s basketball tournament for the first time since 2010. Bethel repeated as MIAC softball champion this spring, its first two conference titles in that sport, advancing this year to the NCAA Super Regionals. And St. Scholastica, which joined the MIAC from the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) when the Tommies departed, scored its first regular season conference title in men’s hockey.

“Looking at the standings and the competition, there’s certainly a lot more parity within the conference,” said St. Olaf Athletic Director Ryan Bowles, chair of the MIAC’s Athletic Director Council. The Oles finished third in both All-Sports races this year.

“In any given sport, it can be any team,” he said. “And quite honestly, that wasn’t always the case. St. Thomas was such a strong program and had built up a powerhouse in many of these sports that it felt like most of us were significantly underdogs. It’s changed.”

Conference Commissioner Dan McKane agreed. “The MIAC is in a really good place currently,” he said.

That wasn’t necessarily the case in 2019, when the Presidents Council sought to oust St. Thomas, a founding member whose undergraduate enrollment of about 6,100 far exceeded that of every other conference institution. Enough schools threatened to leave the nearly 100-year-old MIAC if St. Thomas remain that Tommies officials ultimately chose to withdraw. There were hard feelings on both sides (still are) and lots of bad publicity for the MIAC, accused of bouncing a school for winning too much.

Division III is the NCAA’s largest and most varied athletic grouping, combining more than 400 institutions of widely different enrollments, missions and commitments to athletics. Those differences exist in the MIAC as well, although most members invested in athletics in one form or another over the past 15 years. All D III schools share two common traits: Academics come first, and athletic scholarships are prohibited.

Officials at many MIAC schools felt St. Thomas had outgrown the conference, given its enrollment, institutional ambitions and $550 million endowment. The Tommies’ subsequent move to Division I, bypassing Division II, suggests they were on to something. Two years into the transition, St. Thomas won its first conference title in football, reached the Summit League semifinals in men’s basketball and finished fourth in the league’s men’s all-sport competition.

The MIAC? In the just-concluded school year, seven of the 13 members earned conference titles.

In the two years since St. Thomas left, Gustavus women finished atop the MIAC for the first time in basketball and track and field (both back-to-back), adding titles in hockey, volleyball and tennis. Women’s hockey, a frequent Frozen Four qualifier under longtime coach Mike Carroll, landed the first NCAA title in that sport by any team outside the East. Gustavus added men’s MIAC championships in soccer, swimming and diving, tennis and baseball.

“Gustavus has always had excellence in athletics and been competitive at the conference and national level for almost our entire history,” Gusties athletic director Tom Brown wrote in an email. “That comes from a commitment on behalf of the institution to support programs, hire strong coaches, and give our student-athletes the opportunity to be involved in things other than just athletics.”

In track and field, a high-participation sport the Tommies dominated for decades in both genders, athletes representing many more schools won individual titles and reached podiums.

Start with Gusties standout hurdler Birgen Nelson, winner of three NCAA titles. Macalester’s Journey Amundson, the MIAC Women’s Field Events Athlete of the Year, broke the school long jump record that stood since 1988 and qualified for the NCAA Championships in the triple jump, winning the MIAC in both events. And the Macalester men’s team finished fourth in the conference meet; its highest in almost 20 years.

“At Macalester this year, I think we only had two teams that didn’t accomplish some tremendous feat or have a better record than they did last year,” said Scots AD Donnie Brooks.

Men’s basketball was another high achiever under Coach Abe Woldeslassie, qualifying for back-to-back MIAC Tournaments for the first time since 2004-05.

Brooks used to work in athletic administration at Dartmouth, and he remembers something his former boss, Athletic Director Harry Sheehy, often said: “You can learn a lot by losing, but you don’t want to get a Ph.D. in it.” It’s a point well taken. Whether in the Ivy League or D III, winning and competitiveness matter. Too much losing isn’t good for the psyche of the athletes themselves, the student body, alumni or the institution. Greater athletics success at Mac led to larger crowds at games and a boost in athletics fundraising.

“There are some lessons learned, and the lessons of resilience are important,” Brooks said. “But you also want to have folks recognize the work that you’re doing, and represent your institution in a very positive way.”

But in another sense, the Tommies’ departure hurt the MIAC competitively. One less national-caliber opponent weakens everyone’s strength of schedule, making it harder in some sports for teams to earn at-large NCAA Tournament bids. In men’s basketball, the MIAC sent multiple teams most seasons from 2006 through 2020, but not since. (The Tommies won NCAA titles in 2011 and 2016, the latter as an at-large entrant.)

John Tschida can relate. He coached softball at St. Thomas between stints at St. Mary’s, his alma mater, winning an NCAA championship with the Cardinals in 2000 and two more with Tommies in 2004-05. For years, Tschida turned down Division I coaching jobs, preferring the DIII balance of academics and athletics. That’s why he returned to St. Mary’s in 2021 rather than go to D1 with Tommies. He still lives in the West Seventh Street neighborhood of St. Paul where he grew up, and keeps a fishing rod and tackle box in the trunk of his car when he feels like casting a line.

This season, starting seven freshmen, St. Mary’s (21-18) made its first MIAC Tournament in 10 years. Tschida has even higher aspirations for the Cardinals. But first, he said, his players need experience against elite level competition – experience Tommies teams would have provided.

“In this league, to lose a school like St. Thomas was kind of a bummer, because they kind of set the tone,” Tschida said after a late-season doubleheader at Augsburg. “It’s hard to play high level ball, whatever sport it is, if you don’t know what that looks like … To have somebody that can compete at a national level year in and year out, that gives you great information and elevates the league.”

MIAC athletic directors addressed that in football with a two-division setup that forces St. John’s and Bethel to play each other twice every season. Bethel qualified at-large the past two years. The Johnnies also added an annual non-conference game with six-time national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater. It’s not so easy in other sports.

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“I’ve always said the MIAC was like the Big Ten of Division III, even when I wasn’t a part of it,” Brooks said. “You can look at the MIAC from afar and say, that’s one of the toughest conferences in the country. When you lose a team like St. Thomas, your strength of schedule is impacted.”

Brooks noted Concordia-Moorhead women’s basketball finished 22-5, beat three-time national champion Amherst in non-conference play and MIAC champion Gustavus once in conference, but still didn’t make the NCAA Tournament.

“Having a tougher strength of schedule allows a second team in the MIAC to get in,” he said.

Bowles said MIAC ADs are working on it.

“We want to make sure we’re putting ourselves in a position to be able to have multiple bids,” he said, “because I think our teams – as evidenced by Gustavus women’s hockey – can compete on the national stage and do some really great things.”