St. Thomas and St. John’s renewed their historic rivalry at Target Field on Sept. 23 and attracted an astounding crowd announced at 37,355. This was a meeting at the top level of today’s Division III football, where a select few teams land talented transfers from higher divisions, and also are known to outrecruit scholarship schools for players.
A month later, there was a college game being played at a wind-swept stadium in the countryside near St. Bonifacius. This was also Division III, although it was a different universe from the one in which the Tommies and Johnnies participate.
The St. Scholastica Saints had made the drive from Duluth to take on the Crown Storm. There are 1,750 full-time undergrads attending St. Scholastica and roughly 1,000 at Crown.
And on this Saturday, the football teams were at opposite ends of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference standings:
St. Scholastica pulled away late for a 49-21 victory that put the Saints alone in first place at 7-0. Crown is 0-7 and at the bottom of the 10-team conference.
The Saints being at the top of the UMAC standings in this decade is no more surprising than St. Thomas being at the top of the MIAC. St. Scholastica started its football program in 2008 and, by 2011, it was the UMAC’s dominant force.
That was also the year when the NCAA started to award the UMAC an automatic berth in the D-III bracket. The Saints claimed the first five of those, before losing out by two games to Northwestern (9-0) in 2016.
Greg Carlson was the coach when football started at St. Scholastica. Carlson retired and Kurt Ramler replaced him for the 2014 season. Counting this fall’s 7-0, the Saints are 58-3 in the UMAC dating to 2011.
All of this is marvelous, and none of it is what comes to mind regionally — even nationally — when St. Scholastica and football are mentioned.
“I didn’t spend much time on the internet for a few days, but it still was kind of hard to avoid,” Saints senior Jake Zoellick said. “Fall classes started right after that game, and there were a lot comments. Most of it came from my friends, making jokes about it.”
The “IT” in the locker room, on campus, on Twitter and even on ESPN was this: St. Scholastica had opened the season at St. John’s on Sept. 2 and lost 98-0.
Ramler played quarterback at St. John’s in the mid-1990s. He was the coach at Carleton from 2006 to 2011, then came back as an assistant to John Gagliardi in 2012.
The coaching legend retired after that season. Ramler was among the finalists to replace Gag, but the job went to longtime assistant Gary Fasching. Ramler stayed one season as Fasching’s offensive coordinator, then was hired at St. Scholastica.
And four seasons later, it was 77-0 in the middle of the third quarter and the officials gave word to Ramler that it was fine with St. John’s if the clock went to running time for the rest of the game.
Remember that famous message Gen. McAuliffe gave when the Germans offered surrender at the Battle of Bastogne? “Nuts.”
Well, this was a football mismatch, not bloody combat, but Ramler’s message was also succinct: “Nope.”
Why not accept the offer of mercy? I mean, 84-0 gets an “ouch” from people looking at the long list of college football scores, and 98-0 is national news.
“We had guys on my team who probably weren’t going to get to play that much,” Ramler said. “I wanted them to get a chance to play. No matter the score, when you play, it’s a chance to get better.”
It’s three hours from Collegeville to Duluth. That’s a long ride after 98-0.
“I told them, ‘We move on, go to the next thing, it’s one loss,’ ” Ramler said. “I told them the goal was still the same, ‘To win the conference and go to the playoffs.’ I said what a lot of coaches would say. I also meant it.”
The Saints went to Illinois the next Saturday and beat Greenville 47-27. “We played a heck of a game,” Ramler said. “The guys really responded. St. John’s was a very difficult lesson, but a valuable lesson.”
Which was? “You control what you can control,” the coach said. “We couldn’t control what other people wanted to say about us as a team. We could control our own reality: that we’re a good team.”
St. Scholastica has two games remaining, against two Illinois teams tied for second: at Eureka on Saturday, and then home with MacMurray on Nov. 4.
Two wins and the Saints are back in the playoffs — against a power team from Wisconsin, or at St. Thomas, or perhaps at St. John’s.
“We know if we make the playoffs, we’ll be on the road against an excellent team,” said Zoellick, the defensive tackle. “And we’ll be excited to play that game.”