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With St. Thomas’ jump to DI athletics, expect to see a lot of Gopher-Tommie matchups

Economically, having a lot of competitions scheduled among the two programs makes sense — even if Minnesota and St. Thomas aren’t athletics peers by any reasonable metric. 

The first point of the first Division I match between the Tommies and Gophers belonged to Minnesota.
The first point of the first Division I match between the Tommies and Gophers belonged to Minnesota.
University of Minnesota Athletics/Kelly Hagenson

If you’ve never been to a women’s volleyball match at the University of Minnesota, here’s what to expect before it starts: Noise. Lots of it. Loud, pulsating music accompanies player introductions while match highlights stream on the video board high above the court.

Lauren Galvin
University of St. Thomas
Lauren Galvin
It’s more to pump up the Maturi Pavilion crowd than unnerve the opposing team. Yet last Thursday night at the Diet Coke Classic, freshman Lauren Galvin of St. Thomas felt the pomp and bombast getting to her. It wasn’t that long ago when Galvin, then part of the well-regarded Northern Lights club program, sat in the stands at the Pav, rooting on the Gophers and dreaming of playing on the court below. Now she was, but on the wrong side of the net, and in purple and gray instead of maroon and gold.

Galvin and her teammates eyeballed the surroundings, smiled nervously at each other and readied for play. Galvin tossed the ball high, leaped to serve and hit it solidly — but too long. The first point of the first Division I match between the Tommies and Gophers belonged to Minnesota. 

So did most of the rest.

No one expected an upset in the first regular-season meeting between Minnesota and St. Thomas since the NCAA let the Tommies jump directly from Division III to Division I. Though both DI in name, Minnesota and St. Thomas aren’t athletics peers by any reasonable metric. Power Five vs. mid-major. A $123 million athletics budget (Gophers) vs. roughly $15 million (Tommies). But geography and convenience suggest the two largest universities in the Twin Cities will and should play each other whenever feasible, even if the results overwhelmingly favor the Gophs.         

A rivalry has to start somewhere, and this one proceeded precisely as anticipated Thursday night. The nationally-ranked Gophers dispatched undersized and freshmen-laden St. Thomas in a little more than an hour, winning 25-14, 25-8, 25-7. 

Gophers Coach Hugh McCutcheon gave four-time All-American Stephanie Samedy and two other regulars the night off, but Minnesota still dominated. St. Thomas made some nice plays here and there but never led at any point. The boisterous crowd, announced at 5,386 with about 1,000 no-shows, was still larger than any the Tommies ever played before. That took some getting used to.  

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“It definitely was a little nerve-wracking at the beginning, but I think we got over that eventually,” said Galvin, a 5-foot-10 outside hitter from Woodbury. “I think we kind of hung in there in the first set. Really, we were just like, ‘OK, yeah, this isn’t as scary as we thought it was going to be.’”

Expect to see more of these Gophers vs. Tommies matchups over the next few years as St. Thomas finds its footing in Division I. They’ll play four times a season in women’s hockey as members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), and occasionally non-conference in certain others.

Economically, these make the most sense in non-revenue sports to limit travel and missed class time. The women’s soccer teams faced each other in an exhibition match Aug. 14, and the Tommies compete Friday at the U’s Roy Griak Invitational in cross country. The Gophs and Tommies occasionally met in baseball while St. Thomas was still Division III, as the U sought midweek games to develop underclassmen. Look for that to resume, with some in softball as well.  

But revenue sports is a different story. The men’s and women’s basketball teams may play, though not this season, and probably exclusively at Williams Arena or the Target Center.   

But football? Forget it. Games against non-scholarship programs don’t count toward bowl eligibility, so the Gophers won’t schedule the Tommies unless St. Thomas upgrades from the Pioneer Football League to one that allows scholarships. 

“To me, I would like to think over time, we’ll start to establish traditions, a lot like what happened [Thursday] night with volleyball,” said St. Thomas Athletics Director Phil Esten, who once worked as an associate AD at the U. “The very best traditions in my experience aren’t forced. They happen organically. So there isn’t anything important enough for us to force right away.”

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In volleyball, that started with McCutcheon, who approached St. Thomas about the Diet Coke Classic. McCutcheon knew Thanh Pham, the well-regarded Tommies coach, and St. Thomas assistants Joy Tietz and David Gasner previously worked on McCutcheon’s staff. 

Thanh Pham
University of St. Thomas
Thanh Pham
McCutcheon thinks broadly about volleyball. He’s lobbied the Minnesota State High School League to add boys volleyball to its interscholastic program, and he views another DI program in the state as a plus, boosting statewide interest while attracting more kids to the sport. He also likes that it gives the Gophers a break from their usual gauntlet of ranked non-conference opponents. 

“There’s more of an altruistic purpose to this than predicting RPI [rankings] or something,” McCutcheon said. “We think it’s the right thing to do … Maybe it keeps more Minnesota athletes home. For sure it gives them more opportunities. This is an instance I think where more is more.”

Pham welcomed the opportunity at a time all St. Thomas coaches scrambled to fill their non-conference schedules. The NCAA approved the Tommies’ Division I move in July 2020, forcing them to schedule from scratch. What the school’s volleyball team ended up with wasn’t ideal: It opened with tournaments in Wisconsin, Texas and New York. The Diet Coke Classic matches with the Gophs and Iowa State (another three-set loss) were their first in Minnesota. The 1-9 Tommies don’t play on campus until Sept. 30. 

“We’re not to the point where we’re knocking on the Top Ten in the country and trying to make it to a Final Four,” said Pham, who coached the Tommies to the 2012 NCAA Division III title and 453 victories over 19 seasons. “We’re definitely in our infancy. If the University of Minnesota finds it valuable to play us, we’d love to play them. For us, this is a huge opportunity for us, and we relish every chance that we can get with it.”