After losing their three top players to graduation, St. Thomas fans expected a rebuilding year. It's been anything but.
Steve Fritz had Isaac Rosefelt, Bryan Schnettler and Mike Keating together on his University of St. Thomas basketball team for two seasons. The Tommies were 47-10 overall, 35-5 in the MIAC, tied Carleton for a regular-season title in 2006, won it outright in 2007 and won back-to-back MIAC tournaments.
As seniors in 2006-07, Schnettler averaged 19.6 points, Rosefelt 17.9 and Keating 15.3. They scored 68 percent of the points for a 24-4 team.
The absence of those three players, plus starting point guard Andrew Dwyer, led to a theory that Fritz might be dealing with a rebuilding situation in his 28th season as the Tommies coach.
Frtiz was sitting at 488 victories entering this season. There wasn't much advance publicity about the quest for 500, because of that theory Fritz might have to wait a while to get the required 12 victories.
The outlook changed considerably Nov. 24, when the Tommies went to Winona State and left with an 83-82 overtime victory over the Division II powerhouse.
Asked if that stands as the No. 1 upset victory of his coaching career, Fritz said: "I would guess so. The key was we stayed with them early. We were 10 down in the second half and you're thinking, 'This might not be too bad.'
"Then, we made a couple of shots and it changed to, 'Let's see if we can make a run here.' "
Any leftover giddiness was taken care of 11 days later when the Tommies traveled the several blocks to Macalester and were upset by the Scots.
On Monday, the Tommies were concluding the first half of the 20-game MIAC schedule by hosting the rivals from St. John's.
The Tommies were hoping to get to 8-2 in the MIAC and also to get No. 500 for Fritz. Those things were accomplished with a 71-58 victory that stemmed from a 20-2 run early in the second half.
Eleven previous coaches had reached 500 victories in Division III men's basketball, including Jim Smith of St. John's.
"I've been around so long I have almost as many losses as Steve has wins," Smith said before Monday's game.
Smith has been in Collegeville since the winter of 1964-65. He's now 680-479 for his career.
That put him on the St. John's campus three years before Fritz came to St. Thomas as a player. Fritz replaced Dan Hansard as a star center, then handed off those duties to another star center, 7-footer Bob Rosier.
"Bob and I played together for one season," Fritz said. "So, we had 11 years there -- with Dan, myself and then Bob -- where there weren't many trips down the floor when the ball didn't go into the post."
The coach was Tom Feely, a fiery Irishman who stood to Fritz's shoulders, Hansard's chest and Rosier's waist.
"Our offense was called 'Solo' and we would keep pounding the ball into the post until someone proved they could stop it," Fritz said.
Smith smiled when asked about Fritz as a player and said: "He was a terrific player, except he always was committing offensive fouls when he backed into our guys. For some reason, I never could get the officials to see that as clearly as I did."
Fritz is now 40-24 against St. John's. He was asked if there's one game that stands out in his four decades on the Tommies' side of the rivalry.
"We were up there and trailing by four with 15 seconds left," Fritz said. "We made a layup, stole the ball on the in-bounds play, threw it out to the corner and Scott Janckila made a three."
It was a 1993 playoff game: Tommies 57, Johnnies 56.
There was quick ceremony when this game ended, with Fritz being presented a basketball with 500 painted on it by Jane Canney, a university vice president.
The players cheered mightily for this, including Al McCoy. He's an inside player at 6-4, maximum. The junior comes off the bench with dreadlocks flying and is absolutely relentless.
Are those the only dreadlocks in the MIAC? "Far as I know," McCoy said. "I've been working on them since the eighth grade. That's the last time I had my hair cut."
Fritz was standing nearby, accepting handshakes from various spectators. What about McCoy?
"Isn't he fun?" Fritz said. "He came here from Cretin-Derham Hall and played JV as a freshman. You didn't know if he could play here, because of size, but he has the hands, the feet, and the effort is amazing."
Fun and effort. That's the reason a coach sticks around Division III for 500 victories and beyond.
Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • firstname.lastname@example.org