Gene's Blog: Our Travoltas dance into winner's circle
February 25, 2012
The Tommie men celebrate another hard-fought MIAC championship. (Greg Smith photo)
At 33 seasons and counting, perhaps Tom Hodgson will write a book about his era directing the St. Thomas swimming and diving programs.
In case Tom gets the writer’s bug, here are some possible titles for his manuscript:
“Tommie Swimming and Diving: A few characters… and a lot of character”
“Tommie Swimming and Diving: One focused, fearless, family”
“Tommie Swimming and Diving: A little magic, a lot of memories… and many Mullees”
Hodgson’s 2011-12 men and women provided him with the latest lively chapter at last week’s MIAC Championships.
UST’s women won six events and placed third out of 11 teams. In the process they showcased three of the conference’s most exciting freshmen in Mariann Kukielka, Emily Punyko and Elise Guenther.
The Tommie men? Just call them the “Travoltas.” They caught fire and rode another case of Saturday Night (Comeback) Fever to a 765-762 team victory over St. Olaf, the winner of 26 of the previous 35 MIAC crowns.
Nineteen different Tommie men scored points in the seven events on Saturday night.
“Every swimmer in the meet scored at least once, almost everyone twice or more,” Hodgson said. “We’ve never had a complete team performance like that.”
Six days later, a St. Thomas men’s program that went 54 years without a conference championship is still celebrating its second one in the last three seasons.
Over the three-day meet, the Tommie men broke five school records, while the women rewrote seven. Hodgson counted 87 new entries on the men’s and women’s all-time top-15 lists so far this season.
“Seeing so many of our guys move up from their seed times was extremely exciting,” said Max Hubbard, who swam on two winning relays. “Tom told us on Friday that it could come down to the relay, and we would have to be ready for it.”
Overall, the St. Thomas men won just two of the 13 individual swimming events but brought home the gold trophy with the help of the three Ds: Depth, Diving, and Determination.
Maybe Tom’s guys will get their own footlong on the menu at Subway: The 5-5-5-5. St. Thomas recorded five first places, five seconds, five thirds and fifth fifths. (Just to show this wasn’t some Herman Cain bit, they added six fourth-places, and seven sixths).
On Thursday night, sophomore Nick Johnson won one-meter diving, and the Toms ruled the 200 free relay with Michael Hoelterhoff, Hubbard, Nathan France and Ben Henrickson.
On Friday night, senior Erik Huls officially became a “Lord of the Flys” after he won the 100 butterfly for the fourth consecutive year.
Saturday’s prelim session was crucial in getting enough qualifiers to stay with St. Olaf. “On Saturday, we had to swim really well in the prelims just to have a chance, and we did,” Hodgson said. “In the finals, the kids really stepped up and dove and swam lights out.”
Saturday night brought out the best in both contenders. St. Olaf won four of seven events and added three seconds on the last session, but it still wasn’t enough to hold off St. Thomas.
Sprints Trump Distance
Just as they did en route to the 2010 crown, the Tommies turned a cliché upside down. They discredited the one about life being more of a marathon than a sprint. In MIAC swimming, UST showed that freestyle sprints and fast races in fact can overcome distance superiority.
In 2010, the Tommies were outscored 88-2 by Gustavus in the 1,650 to start the final session. That put them 77 points behind the Gusties. They scrapped back over the next two hours to pass Gustavus for first place on the final relay and posted a final winning margin of 709-701.
This year, St. Olaf opened the evening by placing 1-2-3-4-6 in the 1,650. The Oles outscored St. Thomas 71-12 to go ahead by 49 points. But St. Thomas clawed back over the next five events to get within striking distance.
“After the 1650 we knew we had some work to do,” said Sam Rauchwarter. “We knew that we also had some good events coming up that we would score very well in and be able to take back some of those points. We also needed people to step up and move up places in events if we wanted it to be close. We had some nice time drops and clutch swims to help us gain points back."
Justin Mullee started the rally. The fourth and last of the prominent brothers who have contributed so much to Tommie swimming, Mullee won the 200 back and joined Ethan Nimens and Lucas Brandt in a 1-4-6 Tommie finish. The deficit was trimmed to 39 points.
Next in the 100 free, a 4-5-6-8-14 UST finish led by fourth-placer Henrickson trimmed the lead to 19 points.
St. Olaf wasn’t rolling over. It roared back in the 200 breast with 61 points, and its lead was back to 48.
UST countered in the 200 fly with a 4-5-6-8 finish, led by sophomore Matt Rippentrop, and the deficit was cut to 13.
In three-meter diving finals, St. Olaf won its fourth event of the night, but UST’s Johnson and Gus Jones combined for 30 points with a 3-5 finish, and the Oles’ lead was a mere 748-745.
It all came down to the 20th and final event of the three days, the 400 free relay. UST came from behind after a fast Olaf start and won by more than three seconds with Hoelterhoff, Hubbard, Henrickson and Rauchwarter.
“This was a total team win,” Hodgson said. “The swimmers we tapered for the MIAC Invitational a week ago showed we were ready to swim great, and the women and men kept swimming well, event after event…they lifted each other—with a lot of help from our parents and fans.”
Hodgson knew with a five-month season he’d have two challenges: Keeping his athletes from peaking too early, and reigning in his own enthusiasm.
He explained it this way his blog: “I'm an optimist, and get kidded by the team sometimes for my rose-colored view of them and how they swim. I've adopted the stance that I am "moderately pleased," or when things are really going well, I am (on rare occasions), "reasonably happy."
PHOTO: Tom Hodgson (right) and diving coach Mark Dusbabek.
It became a running joke all season for the St. Thomas team.
Hubbard added, “We made T-shirts that a lot of us wore on the last day that said across the front ‘Tom Hodgson is moderately pleased.' It got brought up after a few races, too, specifically after the free relays (which we won). Guys joked around and said, ‘I wonder if Tom is pleased,’ and other things like that.”
After UST’s peak performance, Hodgson is beyond moderately pleased and reasonably happy. He’s practically chipper. In fact, he’s still floating on cloud seven.
(Greg Smith action photos)