When we think of sports triumphs, we think of Gatorade dousings and champagne showers, of victory cigars and acceptance speeches. Some of the most charming victories in the wide world of sports, though, occur in small gyms, in front of small crowds, with the achievement recognized by a proud few.

On Dec. 5, the Macalester women's basketball team, without any seniors, upset St. Thomas 74-68 at a borrowed gym in St. Paul -- the Scots' second victory in 31 tries in the neighborhood rivalry.

You might have a bigger crowd in your kitchen over the holidays than the crowd witnessing this game, but it still ranks as one of the most remarkable achievements in local sports this year.

In 2004-05, Macalester had to disband after six games because of a lack of players. The next August, athletic director Travis Feezell hired Ellen Thompson, who had worked as an assistant coach at St. Thomas, where she was captain of the 1991 NCAA Division III national championship team.

She got the job too late to recruit new players for that season, and Macalester went 2-21 while Thompson, desperate for healthy and willing athletes, played four soccer players, a volleyball player and a couple of kids recruited from campus pickup games.

"I'm really competitive," Thompson said, her jaw jutting forward as she spoke. "So there were days when I said, 'What am I doing?' But it makes you tougher. It was not hard to go to work and think, 'I need to bring in players.' It was very motivating, to not want to lose by 50 every time we stepped on the court."

This season has brought new challenges. Macalester is moving into a new home gym next season, which means this winter, Thompson has an office at Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, while the team practices at Cretin-Derham Hall and St. Catherine's and plays home games at St. Catherine's, which is where Mac beat St. Thomas.

They might practice any time between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. any given day at any available gym. Add in a couple of key injuries to a team already lacking depth, and the players' academic priorities at a demanding school, and Thompson never knows quite what kind of a team she'll have at any given workout.

"Ellen's just a great person, period, and she's flexible and realistic," said Ann Baltzer, a sophomore center from Bismarck, N.D. "I teach English on Thursdays, so I always miss practice on Thursdays, and she lets that happen. Sometimes I feel really bad for her, but she takes it."

Thompson has scoured Twin Cities gyms for athletes who can improve her program and meet Macalester's academic standards. "She was an amazing recruiter," said sophomore forward Trina PaStarr, from Minneapolis Southwest. "She showed a lot of interest in me, came to a lot of my games, got to know me, and she wasn't fake like other coaches.

"I was really excited to play for a team that was starting from ground zero and had no boundaries. And my sister went to school here, which made it easy."

Baltzer had a different first impression. "I chose Macalester because the school is so great," she said. "I actually wasn't sold on basketball at all. It took a half a year of Ellen calling me and not pleading, but pitching the program to me."

Pleading? "Well, yeah, pleading," Baltzer said, laughing. "Even when I came into the program, I wasn't sure about it, but now I know this is something I would have missed if I hadn't played. It's been amazing. There's something about having teammates, having a group of people behind you no matter what.

"Also, Macalester is rigorous academically, and it's a really nice outlet to come into the gym and play some basketball."

Thompson was drawn to Division III basketball because of her playing and coaching career, and the ability to raise her kids and live in the Twin Cities while coaching. Her team is 3-4 this season and 2-2 in the MIAC. The Scots have beaten Austin, St. Mary's and St. Thomas, and have three losses of three points or fewer.

After going 2-21 in 05-06, Macalester went 7-18 last year, and Thompson was named conference coach of the year. Imagine what she might do next year with seniors, a home gym, a set practice schedule and another year of successful "pleading" with recruits?

"The players could have easily, at any point, said 'This is terrible, I can't do this,'" Thompson said of her first couple of seasons. "But we all said, 'Let's be the group that gets this thing going again.'

"That first year was a revolving door. I had players that lasted six weeks, or less. I had one who quit with four games to go in the season. It was a series of amazing experiences I wouldn't wish on anybody, but I look back now and say, 'Wow, we made it.' "

If the players doubted that, they knew for sure after going on a 16-2 run in the game's final minutes to beat St. Thomas. "I don't remember ever being so excited after a game," PaStarr said. "And I've played a lot of basketball games. We ran off the court and Ellen was just glowing."

And then? "We went back, got some food and all of us were writing papers right afterward," Baltzer said.

Thompson said this is the first season everyone on her roster played high school basketball. "We know we still have a long way to go," she said. "But we're chipping away."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • jsouhan@startribune.com