Glenn Caruso was brought from Macalester down Summit Avenue two years ago to become the St. Thomas football coach. He has put the rebuilding on the fast track, to the degree that the Tommies had a chance to gain prime position for the Division III playoffs with a victory on Saturday.
Somehow, with all its advantages in location and size and wide-ranging educational opportunities, the Tommies managed to remain largely mediocre in football while winning big in most everything else.
They had gone 18 seasons without reaching the playoffs, but now all it would take to get a grip on a West Regional berth was a victory at Bethel.
That "all" is offered with the greatest sarcasm, since Bethel in recent years had turned into the only MIAC program that seemed willing to go facemask-to-facemask with St. John's.
The Royals did not beat the Johnnies until 1998, but since then they have gone 5-6 against them -- including a 16-14 loss in Collegeville this season.
St. John's also had an overtime escape on its home field against St. Thomas. Those narrow victories propelled the Johnnies to another playoff bid, leaving the Tommies and the Royals to spar for the MIAC's probable second berth in the six-team West.
The Bethel formula for football excellence had been power running and energetic tackling. Any team that allowed Bethel to succeed in pounding the ball early would wind up with a 2-hour, 45-minute facial.
"I love what this program does," Caruso said. "We've tried to take a page out of Bethel's book and instill toughness.
"It was a nasty game today. We came here knowing it would be. We knew you had to be the toughest team to win today."
That was St. Thomas, with a 19-10 victory that included only six points (a Tommies touchdown) in a second half that included ball carriers taking thumps from four or five tacklers at the end of almost every try.
The Tommies finished 7-1 in the MIAC. At 8-1 overall, they need only a nonconference victory over Northwestern College to get the first playoff chance since 1990.
St. John's entered Saturday No. 1 in the West Regional ratings, and the Tommies stood No. 6, making it a possible first-round matchup.
"The NCAA likes to keep travel expenses as low as possible," Tommies cornerback Kris Kopp said. "If we get in, sending us to St. John's makes sense. And we'd like to go there."
Kopp's interception was part of a St. Thomas defense that suffocated Bethel in the second half. Down 13-10 at halftime, the Royals could only get the ball as far as their 39, 41, 16 and 21 on their next four possessions of the second half.
Bethel's offense would give up the ball in a hurry, then the Tommies would bang away for a while with tailback Ben Wartman as minutes ran off the clock.
Wartman had 20 carries in the second half and 32 for the game. Bethel's defense didn't crack against his onslaught, but the Royals also couldn't get the ball back right away.
The Tommies had possession for 20 of the 30 minutes in the second half. Once quarterback Dakota Tracy hit Nick Gleisner for a touchdown to make it 19-10 late in the third period, it was all Wartman all the time for the St. Thomas offense.
"They have a tough, physical defense, but that doesn't change what we want to do on offense," Wartman said. "We have five guys up front who are outstanding, and we're going to pound the ball behind them, and pound some more."
Wartman's 32 carries resulted in 133 yards. His average was 4.2 yards and his long was 16 yards. Those last two numbers are modest, yet 32 carries were half of St. Thomas' plays from scrimmage, and 133 yards was a sizable hunk in a game in which the two offenses totaled 541.
Junior linebacker Tommy Becker led the Tommies defense with eight tackles. He was especially noticeable in the second half, when Bethel ran 20 plays in five possessions.
"We're trying to get three-and-outs," Becker said. "If we do that, with our offense, the other team probably won't get the ball back for a while."
Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • firstname.lastname@example.org