Gene's Blog: On a mission, from Italy to Holland
March 15, 2012
The Tommie women are enjoying the ride that began in Italy and has reached Holland (Mich.) for the Final Four. (Thomas Whisenand photo)
St. Thomas women’s basketball owned the 1990s.
The Tommies won the 1991 national championship, made three Final Four appearances between 1995-2000, and claimed six MIAC crowns. They had Division III’s best winning percentage in the decade.
They were St. Thomas’ marquee athletics program, a shade better than the accomplished men’s basketball, men’s hockey, baseball and track and field programs of those years.
Unfortunately, Tommie women’s basketball was unable to sustain that elite level of play and experienced many ups and downs during the 2000s.
Ruth Sinn’s third squad, in 2007-08, turned a corner. That Carrie Embree-led team shared the MIAC championship and returned to the NCAA playoffs.
Two years later, a deeper St. Thomas team won the MIAC playoff title with three road victories in six days.
Last season UST captured the conference regular-season crown with mostly underclassmen, but a couple of stumbles cost it a return to the NCAA playoffs despite a 20-7 record.
“Last year's team was too inconsistent,” Sinn said. “We talked a lot about that coming into this season. We decided we were just going to try to be our best, focus just on ourselves, focus on getting better every day.”
This season, St. Thomas finally put it all together and displayed the balance and consistency of those 1990s teams. Much of that was rooted in an August trip to Italy, where the players and coaches got on the same page.
“We played two exhibition games and also got to have six practices, so we started to bond as a team back in the summer,” Sinn said. “It was an unbelievable experience. It brought this team closer together.”
After Sinn’s team absorbed a 17-point road loss in the season opener at Stevens Point, it matured quickly.
--had a 7-0 run between Thanksgiving and Christmas
--went 11-0 in January
--finished 8-0 in February
--posted a school-record 30 wins
--received the first national top-25 ranking in a decade
--completed the program’s first MIAC regular-season and playoff title sweep
--held 23 opponents to 56 or fewer points
--posted 12 road wins
--built a MIAC-record single-season win streak of 30
--beat the No. 5-ranked and once-beaten Calvin Knights in the Elite Eight to punch its ticket to the national semifinals in Holland, Mich.
--became just the second Division III women’s team in the last seven seasons to reach the Final Four after missing the NCAA playoffs the previous year
--swept Coach of the Year honors in the MIAC and the West Region, the latter among 51 teams
--all without a player ranked in the top 270 in Division III in scoring or rebounding
Sinn credits the success to a blend of unselfish play and a positive attitude.
“Like our football coach told us, if we make a mistake on the court, it's like a GPS,” Sinn said. “If you make a wrong turn, you recalculate and start fresh. That describes the way our team has played together.”
Under the Radar
Sinn wasn’t looking for a quick fix when she was hired as head coach in May 2005. The Tommies have made a steady rise during the seven seasons on her watch. They’ve bought into a focus on defense, teamwork and tradition.
The Tommies have won either the conference regular-season or playoff championship in four of the last five seasons. Yet they’ve flown under the radar nationally, in part due to the MIAC’s recent postseason struggles (3-10 record in NCAA playoffs from 2005-2010, no Elite Eight berths since 2000).
At the start of the NCAA tournament, the then-26-1 Tommies were even tabbed “Most Likely to Disappoint” by the wise folks at D3hoops.com.
Sinn and her team didn’t seem fazed. In fact, they’ve been used to flying under the radar, even on the St. Thomas campus.
Two years ago, their late-season run into the NCAA playoffs was overshadowed by a 30-0 start by the St. Thomas men’s team. Last year’s conference championship was overlooked when the Tommie men stormed to the national championship.
Despite UST’s national success so far this school year in football, volleyball, men’s hockey and men’s hoops, Tommie women’s hoops is no longer a secret. This year’s 30 wins and 30-game winning streak have silenced any critics and doubters. It also allowed a measure of vindication to MIAC women's basketball.
In fact, Sinn has used UST’s overall athletic success as a motivating factor and confidence builder. She recently invited four Tommie National Coaches of the Year -- John Tschida (softball), Steve Fritz (basketball), Glenn Caruso (football) and Ted Riverso (women’s basketball) -– to practice where they addressed her players.
Sinn has a strong core to build on in 2012-13, led by dynamic sophomores in Taylor Young, Maggie Weiers and Kelly Brandenburg. But unfinished business awaits this weekend.
The Tommie women have conquered inconsistency and anonymity. A journey that began last August in Italy will look for a peak this March in Holland.