The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

For the vast majority of the 363 Division I men’s basketball teams, the season will end with a loss in either a conference or NCAA tournament game. The University of Saint Thomas was no exception. The Tommies’ season ended on March 6 with a 70-65 loss to Oral Roberts in the semifinals of the Summit League tournament. It was the third time the Golden Eagles, who won the title but lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament last week, had defeated UST. However, that fact did little to diminish the Tommies’ excellent sophomore season in Division I basketball.

“A year ago, we ranked near the bottom in the rankings of all NCAA DI teams,” said UST head coach John Tauer. “Now we’re about 200th overall. We have a lot of room to grow, but the ceiling for the program is quite high.”

A look at the season’s final numbers confirms Tauer’s view. UST went 10-20 overall in its first season playing DI, but finished 19-14 this winter. As Tauer sees it, there’s more to show the Tommies are making their presence felt.

“We did win more games than the year before,” he said. “But more important, we competed better against the top teams in our league. We actually led Oral Roberts at halftime of that last game.”

“A year ago, we ranked near the bottom in the rankings of all NCAA DI teams,” said UST head coach John Tauer. “Now we’re about 200th overall. We have a lot of room to grow, but the ceiling for the program is quite high.”

It’s a long way from playing Division III

In UST’s first season playing DI, Tauer relied on several holdovers from the school’s DIII days. “Those kids did us proud,” he said. “They signed up to be DIII players, but took on the challenge of playing at the DI level.”

Given a year to recruit, the baton has been passed and the Tommies are now playing some of the more elite teams in the country. UST played five teams that finished with 20 wins or more. The road games featured journeys to Creighton (also an NCAA tourney entrant), Utah, Montana State and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, schools that one might have expected to see on the Gophers’ schedule.  

Jumping to the next level

While the first steps in the new DI world weren’t easy, jumping to the next level is even more difficult. Like many other coaches, Tauer and his staff will be scouring the transfer portal to see who’s looking for a new place to showcase their talents.

“We’ll evaluate who’s out there and what we feel our needs are,” he said. “The four transfers we had this year were all players we’d been in contact with before. Every school is different when it comes to how credits transfer.”

Strong returnees

The Tommies will graduate two seniors and had two other graduate students on their roster. Andrew Rohde, who led the team in scoring with 17.1 points per game, is a freshman, as are Kendall Blue and Ahjany Lee, who ranked second and third in rebounds.  

Assistant coach Mike Maker, who oversees the team’s non-conference schedule, is busy on the phones looking for foes to play in 2023-24. There are a few games already set. Both Milwaukee and Idaho State will be coming to Saint Paul next winter, and UST will go to Green Bay.

While Maker looks for new foes, Tauer reflected on what he’s looking for next season. “We’re more versatile than we were. We made strides defensively,” he said. “But we need to keep improving. It’s all about getting better. People are aware of us now.” 

Travis Walch named STA football coach 

For the past two decades, Travis Walch has been working in various football capacities. After a successful playing career at Winona State, he stayed in town as an assistant coach. Later, he moved to the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) in various roles at Carleton, Macalester and Saint Thomas. In addition, he served as a consultant to several high school and college programs, and directed regional football combines around the country. 

One thing Walch hadn’t done was run his own team. He has his first chance to do so after recently being named the head football coach at Saint Thomas Academy. Walch takes over from Dan O’Brien, who resigned after five successful seasons to lead Holy Family’s football fortunes. It was a job Walch had always hoped for, but didn’t expect to be available for a while.

“I thought Dan would be there for a long time,” Walch said. “But this job has always been in the back of my mind. When he left, I decided the timing was right.” 

Ties to STA

Walch already had ties with STA. His wife, Kirsi, and her sisters are Visitation grads and her brother is an STA grad. In his college assistant days, Walch recruited several Cadets to the programs he was working at.  

Unlike the college programs, Walch comes to a school with a lengthy—and successful—football history. “It’s one thing to go to a 2-8 team and watch it improve to 7-3,” he said. “It’s another thing altogether to go to a team that’s been winning a lot of games and try to win one more the next season. That’s the challenge.” 

And that’s the goal. In 2022, the Cadets tore through the regular season undefeated with all but one game decided by 34 points or more. They outscored their opponents in their two section playoff games 100-19. The season ended abruptly when longtime rival Mahtomedi, which the Cadets beat 28-14 in the regular season, turned the tables with a 20-14 verdict in the state Class AAAAA quarterfinal. (Perhaps not by coincidence, the only tapes Walch has seen of STA’s 2022 season were the Mahtomedi games.)  

Getting the troops together

Walch said he is working on putting together a staff immediately. “I hope to have 85 percent of it by the end of this week,” he said. Along that line, Walch is hoping one familiar face is sticking around to help. Dave Ziebarth was O’Brien’s predecessor as head coach and stayed with the program as an assistant.

“Having Dave would be a big asset as a sounding board,” Walch said. “He knows everybody well and has a terrific football mind—particularly on special teams. We just need to define a role for him.” 

Though he has met some players, Walch’s first meeting with his potential squad was scheduled for this week. He goes into it with the knowledge that, while Savion Hart—who rushed for 1,243 yards as a junior—and others return on offense, the defense will need to be rebuilt.

That’ll be the first on-field priority when the Cadets convene for 2023. To Walch’s way of thinking, the off-field priorities are just as important. “I want us to be a thoughtful club, humble and tough,” he said. “I also want us to have a lot left in the tank at the end of the season. We need to stay healthy. If you use every resource you have too early, you run out of resources.”

Dave Wright can be reached at


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