After reaching the Final Four in her freshman year at St. Thomas, Jenna Dockter expected that she and her teammates would be making a return trip. “We got a taste of it, and we knew how much potential we had,’’ the senior guard said. “But we could never get all the pieces put together.’’
The Tommies made it back to the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament in each of the following two seasons, but a rash of injuries stopped them short of their ultimate goal. With one last chance to get to another Final Four, Dockter and seven other seniors committed to doing everything possible to make it happen. Their dedication — and one of the country’s best defenses — has kept St. Thomas perfect, as the Tommies carry a 29-0 record and a No. 2 ranking into this weekend’s NCAA Sweet 16.
A season of tending to the daily details has led a deep, experienced and exceptionally tight-knit group to Crestview Hills, Ky., where the Tommies will play No. 14 Hope (Mich.) on Friday. Should they win, they would have to beat either top-ranked Thomas More — the host school, which also is 29-0 — or No. 8 Washington University (25-2) to reach the Final Four. It’s a tough road, but no tougher than what the Tommies already have faced.
“After that Final Four experience, they all said, ‘We’re going back. We’re doing this,’ ’’ coach Ruth Sinn said. “Well, that next year, we lost our top post player to a broken foot. The year after that, we lost two starters to ACL injuries.
“From that experience, we learned we’ve got to take care of the here and the now. Nothing is guaranteed. This is a committed, focused group of girls, and that has been the difference.’’
On Wednesday, Dockter was named the MIAC player of the year for her role in helping the Tommies win their 14th regular-season conference championship. The Rosemount native leads a defense that has held opponents to 47.7 points per game, second-best in Division III, and has surrendered more than 60 points only once this season. Dockter is averaging a team-high 13.8 points per game, while senior center Maggie Weiers is averaging 13.1 points and 8.1 rebounds.
Seven seniors are part of Sinn’s regular rotation, and the top three all have known hardship. After making the Final Four in 2012 and finishing in third place, St. Thomas made the Sweet 16 the following year without Weiers, who was hurt in the season opener. Dockter tore her ACL just before last season began, causing her to miss the first 22 games, and forward Anna Smith missed the final 21 games because of a knee injury.
Weiers, of New Prague, said it was frustrating to deal with all that upheaval. But the seniors — many of whom live together — are good friends who supported each other during their recoveries. They kept faith that they could still get another shot at a Final Four, and Sinn laid out a plan last summer.
They would have to examine all the variables they could control — conditioning, defensive effort, preparation — and work at them every day. A trip to Spain in August, which included 10 practices and several games, strengthened their bonds and gave them a head start on the season.
“We’re all very committed, and we all trust each other,’’ Weiers said. “And we had business to finish.’’
The Tommies have checked a few things off their list, going 18-0 in the MIAC’s regular season and winning the conference tournament. Their disciplined, hard-working defense shut down Minnesota-Morris in a 70-31 victory in their NCAA tournament opener, the fewest points St. Thomas has allowed in 87 postseason games.
Hope College knocked the Tommies out of the NCAA tournament two years ago, beating them 71-61 in the Sweet 16. They are not motivated by revenge, Dockter said, but by their desire to finally punch that return ticket to the Final Four.
“Senior year, you get a sense of urgency,’’ Dockter said. “This is our last shot, and we want to do something with it. To see all our hard work paying off is so exciting.’’