The headlines about St Thomas’ athletics saga have almost entirely focused on their men’s football team, but the impact to the soccer landscape in Minnesota could be significant. With the announcement that St Thomas has officially both accepted an invite to join the Division I (DI) Summit League and applied for a waiver from the NCAA to jump directly from DIII to DI, top level college soccer programs in Minnesota may triple in an instant. Here’s what we know so far:
THE WAIVER: St Thomas has publicly said they expect to get a ruling on their waiver sometime this school year (before June, 2020 at the latest). The waiver is needed because NCCA rules required colleges to move up one division at a time (DIII to DII, DII to DI, etc). St Thomas believes their extenuating circumstances - getting kicked out of the MIAC - will help them receive an unprecedented waiver to jump directly from DIII to DI. For all you conspiracy theorists out there, we have heard from several MIAC coaches since last summer that St Thomas specifically wanted to be kicked out, rather than leave on their own, in order to create this kind of narrative. Though it’s unclear that any agreement with a DI conference, or the idea of using their forced exit as ammunition for a waiver application, would’ve been the specific end-game for “playing the victim” back then or even if there is truth to the theory. Still, if the waiver is granted and being kicked out of their previous conference is referenced in the NCAA ruling, it will make for some fun speculation.
MAKING THE JUMP: If the waiver is granted, the plan would be for St Thomas to begin play in the Summit League for the 2021-2022 calendar - the start of a four year provisional period into full DI membership. That would mean that freshman on those inaugural DI teams would currently be sophomores in high school. And, as crazy as it sounds, that is essentially when top women’s soccer programs lock-in commitments. For Summit League programs - and everyone, at times - it can still happen much later than that. But the timing may mean that the school literally starts recruiting as soon as they receive the ruling this fall or next spring. Women’s DI programs are allowed to offer the equivalents of 14 full scholarships. DII programs are allowed to offer the equivalents of 9.9 full scholarships, but many of the DII programs in the area - and DI programs elsewhere - are given budgets that do not max out their allowable scholarships. Given that the football program is slated to apply for the non-scholarship Pioneer League, will that leave greater resources for other sports to maximize their scholarship offers? We’ll see.
FACILITIES: The biggest facilities need for the jump to DI will be hockey. St Thomas currently plays in the St Thomas Academy high school arena. So finding a new hockey home - almost definitely off campus - will be a top priority. There may also need to be some changes to soccer facilities because they’re currently shared with the softball team (an outfield wall is simply put up for the spring season) but there will be some time to make those changes, if necessary. It might simply mean the softball team no longer plays there. So soccer may simply remain.
THE IMPACT: The bigger long term story is what it will mean to add the state’s only DI men’s soccer program and its second DI women’s program. Sure, the Summit League is only a midmajor, and building competitive teams may take St Thomas years, but the impact will still be significant. Folks we talk to at the University of Minnesota give no sense that a men’s soccer program for the Gophers would ever really be in the cards. Adding a mens team would require either adding another womens team of some kind (not likely given buget constraints) or removing a different men’s team (always tougher to take something away than create something new, politically). So this will be a unique opportunity for Minnesota to add it’s first every DI men’s soccer program and only program above DIII.
On the women’s side, Minnesota has long been an exporter of DI talent thanks to so many border schools in the Dakota’s and Iowa and the fact that the U is the state’s only DI program. From the U’s perspective, a strong St Thomas program could mean a consistent exhibition and non-conference opponent without much threat to their recruiting base. From St Thomas’ perspective, they should be able to feast on just-below-Power 5 recruits from across the Twin Cities, in particular, who no longer have to choose an out of state school if they don’t fit at the U. And either way, fans will still have more top level college soccer to watch. Everybody wins.
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