It all seemed a little surreal to Alex Thiry, as the lights in the auditorium dimmed and the 90-some players around him fell silent. Less than four years after the quarterback from Cambridge helped start a football program at the College of St. Scholastica, he was about to hear who the Saints would face in their first-ever NCAA playoff game.
Thiry shifted forward to the edge of his seat, his eyes locked on the webcast being shown on a big screen. When St. Scholastica's name appeared -- as the opponent for St. Thomas, ranked No. 3 in Division III -- the room erupted in shouts and applause. It didn't matter that the Saints will be huge underdogs in Saturday's game in St. Paul. To Thiry, and to the other players and coaches setting the standards for this young program, it brought St. Scholastica one step closer to becoming all they envisioned.
Thiry is among 16 players -- dubbed "the survivors'' by coach Greg Carlson -- who have been on the team since the first snap in 2008. They already have surpassed expectations. The Saints (10-0) are riding a 14-game winning streak. This fall, they won their first Upper Midwest Athletic Conference title, blowing out opponents by an average of 31 points to earn the league's first automatic playoff berth.
To Carlson and school administrators, that is secondary to a greater accomplishment: molding a program in the image of this 99-year-old college. By living its Catholic Benedictine values, the players soothed concerns that football would not fit into the St. Scholastica culture.
"To be honest, they're even better at that than they are at winning," said President Larry Goodwin, who began football as a way to bring more male students to St. Scholastica. "I don't think anyone can say it changed our culture for the worse, which was the fear. It's been a good business decision, and it's given us a more vibrant campus spirit."
The winning has come more quickly than anticipated, thanks in large part to Carlson's guidance and the commitment of the original 16. The Saints went 1-7 in their first season and have improved every year since.
"When I came here, I didn't know what to expect," said Thiry, who leads Division III in passing efficiency with 37 touchdown passes and one interception.
"Those first couple of years, going through those lows made us closer. Working together like we did made us trust one another and have faith in one another, which helped us this year.
"I never really imagined we'd go 10-0 and get the chance to play in the playoffs. But for us seniors who stuck it out, it's pretty cool to know we were part of it from the beginning."
More than football
Carlson, who has coached for 30 years, appreciated how rare it is to start a college football program from scratch. His staff and players had the opportunity to chart their own course, without the taint or burden of history.
At St. Scholastica, they first had to pass muster with those who guarded the school's ideals, including the Benedictine Sisters of its monastery. Carlson knew the program could not succeed if it did not adopt that culture as its own, and that skeptics were expecting it to fall short. He recruited young men who embraced the college's values and could withstand the scrutiny.
From their first day on campus, the players worked to gain acceptance. They did projects at the monastery, held a cookout for the entire school and volunteered with charities. Carlson set up academic oversight and support, and his willingness to impose discipline underscored his seriousness.
That won over most critics. A group of sisters regularly attends games, and some even stop by practice. Football has become a popular part of campus life and has given rise to lively homecoming weekends.
"We knew we were under the microscope," said senior linebacker JP Leary. "And we knew if the sisters liked us, we'd be good. We'd hold the door for people, be polite, be the first ones to volunteer if someone on campus needed something. That's what St. Scholastica is about."
It was, however, too much for some players. The program's high standards on and off the field, combined with the beatings the team absorbed in its first two seasons, whittled an initial freshman class of 59 down to the 16 that made it to their senior season. As that group grew closer and more confident, they believed they could fulfill Carlson's goal to contend for the UMAC title by their third or fourth season.
A big step
Last year, the Saints started 3-3. Carlson challenged them to win their final four games, and in doing so, they finished above .500 for the first time to claim second place in the conference. In their season finale, they beat a rugged Westminster (Mo.) team on the road, which Carlson called a signature victory for the program.
"That day, the coaches felt the kids had shown us something, that they had just grown up," he said. "And they knew they were on the edge of something good.
"Our seniors took a real leap of faith to come here in 2008. They never wavered on what we told them they had to do to get to this level; there was never any doubt or resistance. They just kept following the path we set out, doing everything we asked."
They also knew that 2011 was the first year in which the UMAC champion would qualify automatically for the NCAA playoffs. The team adopted "AQ''-- automatic qualifier -- as its battle cry, putting it on T-shirts and hollering it out when they broke huddles.
Behind a balanced offense and unyielding defense, the Saints marched through the regular season with a focus that awed their coach. Thiry is throwing for 255 yards per game. Running backs Jake Jensen and Travis Nehowig are both averaging more than 100 rushing yards. Keegan O'Neill has caught 16 touchdown passes, just six fewer than the total scored by Saints opponents.
"When we were the ones getting beat up, our camaraderie kept us together," O'Neill said. "Now we're the ones doing the beating. All our hard work has paid off."
When Carlson first began recruiting, some high school coaches thought St. Scholastica was still a women's college or that football was a club sport. Winning has brought greater exposure, he said, drawing interest from more recruits and attracting more players from top high school programs.
Eric Berg, vice president for enrollment management, said football also has fulfilled its mission of pulling in more male students. The current student body is 35.5 percent male, the highest in school history, and Berg said football has contributed to greater ethnic diversity as well.
Carlson said his team now believes it always has a chance to win, another milestone in its development. His larger goal is to sustain what his seniors began; they have helped by mentoring younger players, instilling their philosophy as well as their football knowledge. As they play what may be their final game Saturday, he will reflect on what he called the most significant season of his three decades as a coach.
"I can't say enough about how proud I am of the young men that endured these four years," Carlson said. "Ten years from now, there's going to be a reunion. They're going to see that UMAC trophy, that picture of our first-ever team, that football from our first win. And they can say, 'I was part of that.' They can be really proud of what they've done."