Minnesota women’s soccer fans have been anxiously awaiting the 2021 soccer season to see the performance and results of the newly promoted Division 1 soccer program at the University of St. Thomas. As announced in early 2020, the Tommies will join the Summit League, a league that is no stranger to Minnesotan talent. Head Coach Shiela McGill brings plenty of returning players and has also added the first Division 1 recruiting class in preparation for the program’s move to the Summit League. So what will St. Thomas’ addition mean for the Summit League?
In 2021, the addition of the University of St. Thomas will bring the number of teams in the conference to an even ten. The Summit League, known for its physical play and tough nosed rivalries seems like a perfect fit for the Tommies. It will be an interesting race to the Summit this year as we see how St Thomas will match up against Denver, South Dakota State, and Omaha, three teams who lead the league in 2020.
For a perspective inside the league, we spoke with South Dakota State’s head coach and multiple-time Summit League Coach of the Year, Brock Thompson. Thompson characterizes the league as intense and full of rivalries. He also notes that the Summit League is on the rise. Not only is the league growing in numbers with the addition of UST starting in 2021-2022, but it is receiving more recognition for its talent:
“I think that anyone who has been close to the Summit League would agree with that, there are a number of institutions that are making an investment in women’s soccer which is allowing more coaches within staffs, facility projects, and etc. When you have a number of institutions that make an investment, that benefits the whole league, and I think that’s what you see from an on-the-field standpoint”, Thompson shared.
When asked specifically about what St. Thomas means for the Summit League, Thompson explains that the Tommies being the tenth team in the league make for an easier travel schedule that benefits student-athletes. A tenth team allows for uniform travel- where teams are paired up with another team in the league as “travel partners” to ensure that each team can host an entire two-game weekend at home or play two games away as much as possible.
At this point, the success of the Tommies in the Summit League seems promising. Their dominance at the Division III level has given them a national profile that they will look to add to in the coming years in Division I. Although UST will not be eligible for the conference tournament until their transition to Division I is complete, the Tommies are able to win the regular season. Thompson describes St. Thomas as a bit of a mystery: “I know they’ve got a great coaching staff that will do a good job whether that means this year or a few years down the road”.
With the first Division I recruiting class stacked with talented Minnesotans and out of state talents, the Tommies will look to have a breakout year debut D1 season.
Going into preseason and the regular season, head coach Sheila McGill described the Tommie’s style of play: “We have had in the past certain styles of play. I would say we are a fast possession team. We defend as an entire unit”. McGill also mentions that there will also be things that might change throughout the season. It seems there will be room for some change in formations if needed. But regardless of formation, we can expect a defensively organized, hard working team from St. Thomas.
As far as goals for their first Division I season, McGill brings an approach that focuses on specific themes rather than wins and losses; “Our goal has never been the winning piece,” she explains. “Our goal has always been team chemistry, intensity of play, style of play, and work rate”. More than wins and losses, the Tommies will focus on these things to measure their success. This is something that won’t change from Division III to Division I. McGill is confident that her team will be able to hold that mindset while adjusting to the speed and strength that comes with Division I soccer.
After graduating a large senior class, this year will be an opportunity for all players, returners and newcomers to step up. Team unity will be key in St. Thomas’ success. The program will rely on returning players and new players working together to face the challenges of the transition, “We have a great core with knowledge on how we play and the way we play McGill mentions. “We have newcomers coming in who are learning from that knowledge. It’s going to be a great blend of those two groups coming together to create the team image of who we want to be”. This will be an exciting group to watch as the season continues.
After two exhibitions against far different opponents -- Viterbo of the NAIA and the DI Minnesota Gophers -- one thing remained incredibly consistent: St Thomas’ ability to keep a disciplined defensive shape and consistently stay in front of their opponents.
Senior Alex Balfour, an All-American during St Thomas’ DIII MIAC days, said a lot of the focus in the jump to DI and battles against teams like the U has been improving fitness to match the increased physicality. So many of the players in the Summit League and other teams on the Tommie’s schedule are former teammates and friends.
“We’ve all played on club teams with these girls,” Balfour explained. So it’s not the first time they’re stepping onto the same field. But after years of playing as more of a possession team at the DIII level, it’s understandable that there will be some adjustments and some need to adapt. “It’s just a huge transition overall,” Balfour added.
After a while the Gophers were able to break down the defense at times and put a number of goals on the board, but not until after they struggled for most of the first half to really put dangerous chances on goal. If St Thomas can consistently stay in front of attackers and force other teams to really earn every goal, they should at least be able to compete for results during their first campaign in the Summit League.
Tommies draw in first D1 match
St Thomas battled to a 0-0 extra time draw against Northern Iowa on Tuesday to officially kickoff the Division 1 era for Tommie Soccer. In what was largely a defensive battle, the Tommies continued to show solid defensive shape as a team -- as we’ve seen them do in their exhibitions this fall -- but at times were a bit off in tracking opposing runners from UNI who took advantage of gaps between defenders on the back line.
Multiple times during the first half, and then at times later in the game, UNI was free on goal with pretty high quality chances to score but at each turn goalkeeper Olivia Graupmann was there to make a big save -- many times at point blank range.
The Tommies largely seemed to rely on quick counter attacks and aggressive attempts over the top to allow some of their athletic front line attackers, like freshman Abby Brantner, to run on to the ball and take their chances -- even if outnumbered by defenders. UNI had a bit more possession to their attack but played in a similar direct style throughout the match as well, finishing with a 9-3 advantage in shots on goal.
In the end, a 0-0 tie was likely fitting for two programs that played with plenty of grit and hustle down to the last whistle but with some early season rawness to their attacking play. (Full highlights from the match can be found on our Twitter account).
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