The St. Thomas AD and men's basketball coach lost his sister in an auto accident.
The St. Thomas men's basketball team went a period of 27 days playing only three nonconference games. Then, on Jan. 3, the Tommies played at Carleton and began the MIAC's annual sprint to the finish.
The Carleton game was the start of a stretch of four games in eight days. Overall, there would be 16 games remaining on the conference schedule, and they would be completed in a period of 46 days.
Steve Fritz is in his 27th season as the Tommies coach, and he also serves as the athletic director for a 22-sport program. And then last Thursday, Fritz's annually hectic winter turned tragic.
"Right after lunch, my phone rang," Fritz said. "It was my nephew. He said, 'Mom's dead.' "
It happened that quick. Patricia Nelson, one of Steve's four sisters, was leaving the driveway of her lake home in Drummond, Wis. She tried to pull onto Hwy. 63 in her pickup. Police speculated that the wheels might have spun on the ice, delaying her turn.
A west-bound semitrailer hit the truck broadside. Patricia, 59, and her sister-in-law, Jeannette Nelson, 67, died at the scene. The husbands of the pair -- the Nelson brothers -- were in the next driveway and saw the accident.
"They had side-by-side homes on the lake there with individual driveways," Fritz said. "The men were headed one place and the wives were headed another. That's why they were traveling separately.
"Patricia was hearing- impaired from birth. After she raised her family, she got her master's degree in teaching in that field. Her husband didn't have a disability, but he learned to teach blind students. They lived in Edina and worked with kids in a number of school districts.
"It was amazing at the reviewal and then the memorial service to see the outpouring of people. It was inspiring to see how many lives Pat and her husband have impacted."
The reviewal was Sunday night. The memorial service was Tuesday. In between, the Tommies basketball schedule continued with a Monday night victory over Augsburg.
The Tommies were home again on Wednesday night. The crowd included Fritz's 86-year-old mother, Ellen Spoo, who lives in Rochester.
"In this case, Mom was in town because of Pat's memorial service," Fritz said. "But she gets someone from the family to drive her to most of our games."
Her son's team made it another enjoyable fan experience for Mom with a 74-57 victory over Gustavus Adolphus. The Tommies are now 8-0 in the MIAC and 12-1 overall.
The only loss came to Wisconsin-La Crosse last month, when St. Thomas was playing without star center Issac Rosefelt. He missed the three December nonconference games because of a virus.
"I'm where I need to be physically," he said. "If I had a problem tonight, it was trying to do things too fast."
The Tommies rely heavily on Rosefelt and two other seniors: Bryan Schnettler and Mike Keating. Rosefelt is lean and extra-quick inside. Schnettler is a terrific outside shooter. And Keating?
"He's the best player in this conference," said Hamline coach Barry Wohler, who was watching Wednesday's game. "He does everything."
Rosefelt and Schnettler had 22 points apiece. Keating had his poorest shooting night (3-for-12) and finished with seven points. The Tommies are averaging 76 points per game, and the three seniors have been scoring 53 of those.
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