The derisive chant cascaded from the student section.
D-I reject! D-I reject! D-I reject!
Opposing fans had serenaded John Nance with something along those lines before, and it happened to the St. Thomas senior guard again during a recent game. Nance laughs about it because, to him, it's complete nonsense that has no effect on his psyche.
"I don't understand it," he said. "It's not really an insult to me. I took an opportunity to go Division I and I gave it a chance."
Besides, it feels like a lifetime ago that he signed a football scholarship with the Gophers, one of two quarterbacks recruited to Dinkytown by former coach Tim Brewster in his 2008 class. Five years later, Nance is not a football player anymore. Or on a full-ride scholarship. And he competes in relative obscurity compared to the bright-light scrutiny of Big Ten football, though the actual distance that separates him now is only 5 miles.
He couldn't be happier with how things turned out.
"It's been a lot of fun," he said.
Nance is senior captain on a St. Thomas basketball team that finished the regular season 24-1 and ranked No. 1 nationally in NCAA Division III. The Tommies won their eighth consecutive MIAC title and led all D-III teams in average margin of victory at 22.0 points. They enter the postseason Friday seeking their second national championship in three seasons.
Nance's impact is measured by his versatility. He leads the Tommies in assists, steals, blocks and minutes played and is third in scoring at 10.1 points per game. He's made 57 percent of his shots and is one of the best perimeter defenders in D-III, according to St. Thomas coach John Tauer.
"The thing I'm most proud of is, he's become our leader," Tauer said.
Nance's story also serves as another reminder that an athlete's college career often deviates from its anticipated trajectory. College football recently held its national signing day, which always generates excitement and breathless prognostications over the future of unproven prospects. But we tend to forget that this is merely the starting point on a path that could lead them virtually anywhere. Even to another sport.
Nance figured his basketball career was over when he graduated from Cretin-Derham Hall and accepted a football scholarship. Basketball was his favorite sport and he received scholarship offers from a few Division II schools as a senior, but he couldn't turn down a free education at a Big Ten school without at least giving it a shot.
He arrived in the same recruiting class as four-star quarterback MarQueis Gray, who received the red-carpet treatment from Brewster as a potential program-changer. Nance fit the profile of a project who needed a few years to develop physically. He wasn't naive about his prospects for playing time.
"I gave it a try my first year," he said. "I saw that I wasn't going to get my chance, and I missed basketball a lot."
He played intramural basketball with some friends during his redshirt season and ultimately decided to transfer after the school year. Nance went to the St. Thomas summer camp as a kid and Tauer recruited him in high school. It seemed like a natural fit, except Tauer warned Nance that he would remain glued to the bench unless he took care of the ball, stopped making so many careless one-handed passes and played better defense.
"He didn't believe me," Tauer said. "He came here and the first year he sat the bench and was really frustrated."
Said Nance: "My coaches were yelling at me and I was like, 'What? I used to be able to do this all the time.' It was an interesting transition."
He matured and adapted as a player and eventually found his place in the program. He scored 16 points off the bench in the 2011 national championship game and became a starter and all-conference performer last season. He has played even better this season.
Nance's college career will come to a close after the playoffs. He has won 99 games in a St. Thomas uniform and has a chance to finish with two national titles. And he is on track to earn his degree in business management this spring.
Call him names if you must, but Nance's college experience is a success story, nothing less.
"I definitely didn't see this path at all," he said. "I'm happy with my decision, and it's been a great journey."
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org