The Wright Call
By Dave Wright
While sports contests against Macalester, Hamline, Saint Catherine and other MIAC college opponents are being played out for the last time this spring, the University of Saint Thomas’ transition to Division I athletics is already taking place on its Saint Paul campus. It started with football coach Glenn Caruso announcing a couple of future nonconference games and the school’s hockey programs officially finding new leagues for the 2021-22 season.
However, in the last couple of weeks just how different athletics will be for UST really began to take shape. Courtney Brown, who played high school basketball at East Ridge and spent the last two seasons at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, announced on March 26 that he is leaving the Panthers to become a Tommie. The 6-foot-7 Brown averaged 5.4 points and 3.9 rebounds while starting 14 games last season at Milwaukee.
A week later, UST men’s basketball coach John Tauer announced that Mike Maker, a former head coach at Division I Marist College in New York, and Gameli Ahelegbe, an ex-Tartan and Minnesota State University-Mankato player who spent the last seven seasons on the staff at the University of South Dakota, have signed on as full-time assistant coaches for the Tommies. Ahelegbe’s help should be invaluable, since UST will play basketball in the Summit League next year, a conference that includes the USD Coyotes.
On April 6, an even bigger move was announced. Rico Blasi, who won 398 games in 20 years as head men’s hockey coach at Miami University (Ohio), was introduced as the new head coach of UST’s men’s hockey program. Miami is known as one of the best universities in the country for studying geology. However, in athletics it’s probably best known as a place where football coaches learn their craft before moving on to bigger things. The coaches who moved from there to higher plateaus include such old-timers as Weeb Ewbank (New York Jets) and Paul Brown (Cleveland Browns), college’s Bo Schembechler (Michigan) and Woody Hayes (Ohio State), and current NFL coaches John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens) and Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams).
But the Miami RedHawks have hockey street cred as well. A native of Weston, Ontario, Blasi played at Miami in the early 1990s (one of his teammates was current Saint Thomas Academy head hockey coach Trent Eigner). Blasi later spent four years as an assistant there before being handed the reins in 1999. His teams finished ninth in the CCHA the first year, second the next season and made the NCAA tournament a couple of years later. In 2009, the RedHawks lost to Boston University 4-3 in the NCAA Division I title game. The RedHawks also made the NCAA tournament five of the next six years.
In Division I, things can change quickly. Blasi was let go by Miami in 2019 and moved on to Providence College as associate athletic director for men’s and women’s hockey.
Jeff Boeser, one of the best players in UST hockey history and the head coach for the past 13 seasons, told UST’s athletic director Phil Esten last fall that he wouldn’t be a candidate for the Division I position. That gave Esten around a five-month window to find a new bench boss.
Local names such as Mike Guentzel, a former head coach and a longtime Gopher assistant, and Scott Bell, an ex-Gopher who guided Hamline to its first MIAC championship in 53 years, were among the names bandied about as possibilities.
In the end, Esten went with Blasi, saying, “He was a clear candidate for the job because of his record and his belief system.”
Blasi said, “We have to manage expectations. We need to create a culture. There are going to be tough days, but we’ll learn from them. The wins will come.”
In his public debut, Blasi acknowledged the past efforts of Boeser and, before him, Terry Skrypek, who twice guided UST to the Division III title game. Both were in the audience at the introductory press conference. Then, as a hint of what lies ahead for all the head coaches about to embark on a new adventure, Blasi said, “We have to manage expectations. We need to create a culture. There are going to be tough days, but we’ll learn from them. The wins will come.”
Esten agreed, noting, “This is a three- to five-year process.”
Part of that process is upgrading the roster. It’ll likely take more than finding talented freshmen. One route is with players available through the NCAA transfer portal. Basketball has already dipped into that pool with Brown.
The Tommies have been a Division III power in several sports for years, but none of that will matter after this spring’s seasons end. Thus, the possibility exists that UST, as a first-year Division I program, may be active portal pursuers in several sports. Regarding the portal, Blasi said, “It can help because it gives student-athletes an opportunity, but there’s a lot of vetting that needs to be done.”
Blasi met the team for the first time just before his press conference. What he likely didn’t say to them is that several current players may not be wearing purple next fall.
One big question for UST’s hockey programs is the matter of facilities. The Tommies currently use Saint Thomas Academy’s arena, which holds about 1,000 fans, as their home ice. The general view is that a new arena is needed to attract top-notch players. Blasi noted that when he started at Miami, the RedHawks also played in a small arena. Eventually, a newer, larger place was built.
Asked about this, Esten simply said, “We’re assessing options.”
Blasi also skipped the question. “My job is to recruit players,” he said.
However, before that he’ll need to do what Tauer did and find some assistant coaches. That will likely be true for all the head coaches as they make the transition to Division I.
At present, there are a few spring sporting events left for UST to participate in as a Division III school. As this was being written, the baseball, softball and both tennis teams were all undefeated in MIAC play.
STA, CDH pucksters back together in 2021-22
The recently completed boys’ high school hockey season was the first one in anybody’s memory where longtime rivals Saint Thomas Academy and Cretin-Derham Hall did not face each other. All that will change—perhaps in a big way—in 2021-22.
Coaches Trent Eigner of STA and Matt Funk of CDH have agreed to make up for lost time with two contests next season, including the season opener. If the rumor mill is to be believed, there might even be a third meeting.
As a matter of routine, section designations for all high school sports are being shuffled around next year. Word is that CDH, which has been in Section 6AA with Edina, Benilde-Saint Margaret and others, will move to Section 3AA, which STA has dominated in recent years. Holy Angels will also move into that section, as will Minnehaha Academy’s cooperative team.
On a side note, Gentry Academy, which rolled to a Class A state championship last month in its first year, will move up to Section 4AA. Life could be difficult there as Gentry will contend with Hill-Murray and White Bear Lake for a return trip to Xcel Energy Center.
Dave Wright can be reached at email@example.com.
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