The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

It’s June and Phil Esten can finally catch his breath. It’s been a wild ride for the University of Saint Thomas athletic director for the past year. At this time in 2021, Esten was juggling watching his baseball and softball teams come close to winning NCAA Division III championships. Both track and field teams won MIAC titles and advanced to NCAA meets as well. It capped a year that had seen many other UST teams do what had become commonplace in the MIAC—overwhelm their competition.

All that came to an end when UST made the leap to Division I. In short order, it went from being the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys of the conference—you know, the team other teams love to hate—to being more like the Minnesota Twins—a team hoping to find lightning in a bottle against well-established opponents.

“This’ll offer a great return for the school,” Esten said when asked about the move last year. Indeed, several high school athletes who had never heard of the school or never considered it were now on campus representing the purple and gray.

   

The early results were impressive. The football team won seven games in the fall. Both hockey teams had a rough go of it in the winter, but earned wins over well-established programs before the end of the year. The men’s basketball team won 10 games and the women’s team won seven in their new leagues. The same was true for the baseball and softball teams, which ended their seasons recently.

Thus, the groundwork has been laid. Having seen up close what needs to be done, Esten and his crew are already looking forward to what 2022-23 will bring.

One potential fly in the ointment that wasn’t discussed much a year ago is the expansion of the NCAA transfer portal. This is the online group for athletes who were dissatisfied with their current college and want to find a better place to play. Saint Thomas hasn’t been much of a player in this exercise.

 

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Retirement went well for a time, but a series of ailments has now forced Denning, 77, into long-term care. Snap Leitner, who was his right-hand man on the diamond for many years, decided it was time to give back to the old coach. Accordingly, a GoFundMe page has been set up to help with Denning’s expenses.

“We’ll gladly take a transfer, but it has to be somebody who’s going to fit in here,” Esten said. In short, it must be someone who isn’t only going to play football or basketball. They must excel in class as well.

It’s a fine line UST needs to walk between attracting money to improve their athletic facilities, while keeping the academic standards that have been the school’s calling card. It might not be such an easy summer for Esten after all.

It’s Dennis Denning’s turn to be helped

It was a chilly April afternoon in the late 1980s at Cretin-Derham Hall’s bandbox of a baseball field. The few spectators brave enough to sit in the stands wore overcoats. Many more watched from cars with their heaters turned on as the Raiders took the field against Como Park.

The umpires looked hesitantly at the darkening sky but, with both teams ready and eager, decided to play ball.

Most of the games between these two schools resulted in CDH scoring lopsided victories. On this afternoon, however, the Cougars got a pair of runs in the top of the second inning to take a 2-0 lead. The Raiders came to bat anxious to make amends when the home plate umpire waved the game to a halt. It was now snowing hard. Como coach Bob Turner protested. “You have to keep going,” he pleaded with the umpire. “It’s snowing,” was the reply. “You can’t play in the snow.”

At the time, if a game was stopped in mid-inning due to weather, the score reverted to the previous finished inning when future play resumed. Turner knew this and protested to the umpire, “You don’t understand. We’ve never had a lead against them before.”

At that point, CDH coach Dennis Denning entered the discussion. “That’s OK,” he said. “We’ll pick it up from here tomorrow.” The umpire looked at Denning and said, “You can’t do that. That’s not the rule.”

Denning smiled and said, “I’ll take the heat if necessary. Weather is supposed to be better tomorrow. Is 3:30 OK to resume play?” Turner and the umpires nodded in agreement.

Play resumed the next day. The Raiders’ bats warmed up and CDH eventually came away with the win.

It’s probably not the most memorable of the 901 wins Denning racked up in his days as a head coach at CDH and later at the University of Saint Thomas. However, it was quite possibly the lengthiest in Denning’s decades on the field. It also personified a basic tenet of Denning’s coaching philosophy—that talent, confidence and a will to win can propel a team to great heights.

Denning certainly had a lot of talent on those Raider teams that won six state championships and on the UST squads that won 14 MIAC titles and a pair of NCAA DIII crowns. But he also convinced his players to give more than they thought they could to play good baseball while enduring Minnesota’s chaotic spring weather. He finally decided to retire just before the start of the 2010 season.

“It takes a lot to run a successful college program,” he explained at the time. “The coaching, recruiting and administrative tasks are a 12-month commitment and take an extraordinary amount of time and energy. Frankly, I don’t have the energy today to do the job at the standard I feel it deserves.”

Retirement went well for a time, but a series of ailments has now forced Denning, 77, into long-term care. Snap Leitner, who was his right-hand man on the diamond for many years, decided it was time to give back to the old coach. Accordingly, a GoFundMe page has been set up to help with Denning’s expenses. At last look, more than 400 folks have chipped in to help. The link can be found at tinyurl.com/2p98m3f5.

The comments on the site are telling. They range from former players to former teammates (going back to his days at Saint Luke’s, CDH and Christie de Parcq) to parents whose kids attended one of Denning’s summer baseball camps.

It’s their way of giving back to someone who gave them so much.

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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